HomeMarch 2012Channeling Repentance

Channeling Repentance

Every Passover when we sit around the seder table and tell the Biblical story of the Exodus, we relate the hardship of slavery and the exhilaration of freedom. For most of us, these are concepts we can only connect with on a metaphorical level.  But for the women of B’not Or, the lack of freedom and the hope of deliverance is very real.  They are the inmates of the California Institute for Women in Corona.
More than 12 years ago, a program of Jewish services and learning began at CIW, and had been overseen by Rabbi Mel Silverman, founding rabbi and the full time Jewish chaplain.  Upon his retirement he pleaded with Rabbi Haim Asa to bridge the gap and agree to continue the program of Jewish worship and learning at the prison.  At the time, Asa was rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Tikvah and employed as the Jewish Chaplain for three local state mental institutions where he worked during the week.
Asa has spent a lifetime fighting injustice in Argentina, Europe and Israel.  “My tikkun olam is not limited to our people but rather to all who need my help.”  Rabbi Asa always acts on his beliefs and continued to do so several years ago, when he agreed to volunteer at the CIW’s fledgling Jewish program.
“And so,” Asa said with a gleam in his eyes, “Saturdays became my mitzvah day.  I loved every minute of being with those women who were eager to learn and appreciated every moment I was able to give them.”  He continued that volunteer routine for five and a half years bringing volunteers from TBT and other congregations to CIW, until he became seriously ill and was no longer able to serve at the institution.
This year, CIW’s annual Passover seder will honor Rabbi Asa in recognition of all the years of volunteer work, and for encouraging members of the greater Jewish community to volunteer as well.  Each seder hosts about 30 community volunteers and 50 to 70 inmates and includes great food and lots of singing.  Perhaps one of the most touching moments is when the inmates, volunteers and guests gather in a circle and sing Linda Hershons’ “Circle of Freedom.”  “It is so very touching,” said Lou Ann Taback, longtime volunteer.  “We can leave, but the women must return to their tiny cells.”
“The Passover celebration and its theme of liberation resonate powerfully with many of these women,” said Rabbi Moshe Halfon, current fulltime chaplain and director of Jewish programming at CIW.  “Some of them are there for only a short time, several years or less; others are serving long sentences.  One, an 84-year-old woman, was given a life sentence 35 years ago and will be in prison until she dies.”
The women have been convicted of drug crimes and white-collar crimes, such as gambling or shoplifting, on murder-related charges and parole violations.  Many are former drug addicts, recovering alcoholics or survivors of domestic violence.
But, Judaism teaches that human beings are not basically sinful.  We come into the world neither carrying the burden of sin committed by our ancestors nor tainted by it.  Rather, sin, chet, is the result of our human inclinations, the yetzer, which must be properly channeled.  Judaism’s central criterion for personal redemption is the deeds and actions that each individual performs.
Miriam Van Raalte, executive director of TBT and one of the many volunteers, commented on how her perception of who these women are changed the first time she attended the seder.  “I knew I was going to meet people who had committed crimes,” said Van Raalte, “and were where they were supposed to be, paying their debt to society.  But after meeting them, hearing their stories, I began to see them as people working through their own mitzrayim, trying to get to the other side.”  Van Raalte has since returned to lead a tallit-making workshop. “Watching them weave their own stories into their tallit has been incredibly moving.”
Taback, who coordinates the seder, has witnessed the program’s growth.  “Rabbi Asa planted the seeds, and Rabbi Halfon has made it flourish.”  Taback works with volunteers from the community and chaplains from LA and Orange County.  “It’s thrilling to see how it affects the women,” she added, “and has drawn many of them to embrace Judaism either as a lifestyle or a lifetime commitment.”
Over the past few years, several women approached Halfon seeking conversion.  After the women went through a program of study, Halfon organized a beit din of Reform rabbis, including Rabbi Kenneth Milhander of TBT, who converted the women but without a mikvah, because there isn’t one on site.  Four are serving life sentences.  “Before they learned about teshuvah, the only thing many of them knew about the concept of repentance was that sinners can get to heaven through Jesus Christ,” said Halfon.  “That these women are learning an ethically based model for self-improvement, which I happen to call Judaism, is changing them.”
To date there have been eight conversions, and a few years ago two women approached Halfon asking to become B’not Mitzvah.  “I set a high standard for them,” he commented, “and these two were willing to rise to that standard.”
Both women studied Hebrew on their own time, in addition to working jobs and attending classes, 12-step programs and other prison-mandated activities.  Since then there have several more B’not Mitzvah.
At any given time, Halfon counsels about 50 Jewish women: one-third grew up in Jewish homes, one-third identifies as Jewish and a third hopes to convert one day, he said. He also teaches a weekly Judaism 101 class on Thursday nights.  “My intention,” he said, “is to give them the knowledge so they can walk out the door and join a synagogue.”
Halfon has organized a network of volunteers from Southern California synagogues.  With volunteers and help from inmates, the rabbi leads Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday morning.  Some come every week, some three times a year.  They teach yoga before services on Saturday mornings while also helping to lead the services, teach about Judaism and organize holiday celebrations.
“My job is to help them feel like human beings again, to establish a connection with God and with the Jewish community and to give them the hope that teshuvah [repentance] is possible,” Halfon said. “In Judaism, even a person who has been convicted of a crime has the ability to do teshuvah,” he added. “According to the Talmud, even someone in prison must be visited by the Jewish community.”
If you are interested in volunteering or learning more about the program, contact Rabbi Moshe Halfon at ravhalfon@aol.com.

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