In the footsteps of Joseph

This past summer, two 19-year-old Chabad rabbinical students set out on a most unusual road trip: visiting Jewish inmates in prison.

Chabad in prison (photo credit: Paul Ross)
Chabad in prison
(photo credit: Paul Ross)
One of the most significant periods of my life was when I was in jail for six years – as a volunteer. I worked with teenagers and young adults who were incarcerated for everything from drug use to multiple murders.
My friends asked why I would waste my time with criminals. My answer was always the same: I got a lot more than I gave. I could see into the hearts of these kids who had never known love, whose parents were aching and breaking from poverty, turbulence, emotional imbalance, drug abuse or a criminal lifestyle. Every time I left, after I passed through the sally port, I was grateful that I was not raised with the socioeconomic odds stacked against me.
A few years ago, I was told by Chabad rabbi Berel Levertov, who lives in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, about a Jewish woman behind bars who was convicted of killing her mother. Apparently, Michelle (not her real name) had no friends and no visitors, so I went to see her. At first, we spoke on a phone through a thick glass wall. She was a fashionista who was unhappily attired in an orange, prison-issue jumpsuit. Her hair was limp from cheap commissary shampoo.
After many months, I was allowed contact visits with her. When I hugged Michelle, she said no one had touched her or shown affection to her since her arrest.
Each time I left the state facility, I sat at the wheel of my car and trembled. Michelle and I were not separated by the great socioeconomic divide. She was a smart, funny, literate, neurotic New Yorker. I could have gone to school with her. I could have ended up like her. I was the only person who went to her trial. I sat there when she was convicted, and when she was shipped off to a women’s prison. She told me she was reading and rereading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, about how he survived and found meaning in a Nazi concentration camp. She haunted me.
LAST SUMMER, I got a call from Rabbi Levertov, asking me to come to his house to meet two 19-year-old Chabad rabbinical students. “You share a passion for prisoners,” he said.
He was right. Peretz Schapiro and Dov Kalmensohn were in the middle of a most unusual summer road trip: They were sent by the Aleph Institute ( to visit Jewish prisoners around the American Southwest. The Aleph Institute was founded in the early 1980s by Chabad rabbi Aaron Lipskar, from Florida, to look after the needs of Jewish prisoners and their families. I spoke for several hours to the two, and we all agreed that we would be in contact again after their trip was over and they had time to integrate and incorporate the experience.
Recently, we were in contact again, and both Schapiro and Kalmensohn said the Jewish jail road trip had deeply impacted them, and they filled me in on the details.
Schapiro said that to prepare for their mission, he and Kalmensohn had asked the head of their yeshiva in Los Angeles what they should tell the prisoners. “He said that of all the great personalities in the Torah, including Abraham and Moses, only Joseph, while in prison, is called a successful man,” Schapiro reported. “He went on to explain that when things are going right for someone and he enjoys success in what he is doing, it’s not real success, rather the result of circumstance. When things are not going right and the person still remains positive and focused on his goal, that is a successful person.
“Joseph, who was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery and thrown into a dungeon for a crime he didn’t commit, had every right to be angry at society and lose his focus. However, even after all these terrible things had befallen him, he kept a positive outlook and a good attitude. He woke up one morning, and the fact that his fellow inmate didn’t have a smile on his face bothered him. That is real success. When we heard this, we thought it would be something nice to tell the inmates to try and inspire them and lift their spirits a bit.”
The two yeshiva students were surprised by the Jews they met behind bars. “I was astonished by the joyful demeanor they all carried,” Kalmensohn reported. “From a very practical perspective, there was really nothing to be happy about. However bad I thought the yeshiva food was, the prison food makes the yeshiva stuff look like delicious gourmet, both in quantity and in quality.
Confined to 100 [square] feet [9 sq.m.] or so with no contact to the outside world, living in sweltering heat that can average a 110º [43ºC] would be enough to depress anyone.
Yet, against all odds, they showed up for our visits, which were sometimes quite early.
I was still a bit groggy but I was greeted by a cheerful ‘good morning.’” “Their dedication to Judaism is incredible,” Schapiro added. “They are living with skinheads, white supremacist groups and people whose attitude toward Jews is definitely not a welcoming one. Yet not only are they not ashamed or embarrassed of their Judaism, many of them openly walk around the yard with a yarmulke, and some even have their white tzitzit strings proudly hanging out of their orange uniform. This is something that every Jew can learn from. If prisoners in an anti-Semitic environment can be proud of their Judaism, how much more so can the rest of us living in free countries not be ashamed of our Jewish heritage.”
Schapiro described many inmates who grew up in secular homes, or didn’t know they were Jewish until late in life. Their first contact with Judaism came when they were locked up, and they longed to know more about their religion. Since they had no access to the Internet and the prison library – if it had any Jewish books at all – rarely had more than a Bible and a prayer book, it was very difficult for them to get information.
The job of Schapiro and Kalmensohn was to find out what the inmates needed. They were not allowed to bring books into prison, but they could try to arrange for the books to come from an official organization.
“Their thirst for Judaism won’t be deterred by their limited sources,” Australian-born Schapiro explained, “and they will just keep reading whatever they have and try their best. We met one fellow who found out that a Jew has to pray three times a day, but, since he had no siddur, he didn’t know what to say. So he decided to recite the Ten Commandments three times a day, as that was the only thing he knew.”
One man the duo met had access to the Tanya (the central text of Chabad Hassidism) and learned that we all have two souls; the bad things we do come from one of them and the good from the other. When someone does the wrong thing, it doesn’t mean that he is essentially a bad person, but, rather, that at the moment, he gave into his bad side.
I WAS ASTOUNDED at the sensitivity and maturity of Schapiro and Kalmensohn. At their age, my focus was on boys, parties and pulling all-nighters before exams.
“Most of the inmates we met came from broken homes,” Schapiro said. “They went through a divorce at a young age, were orphaned, or just had a lack of TLC from people who were meant to love them. Some of them lived on the streets, getting involved with bad things. Many of their families cut them off, and we were their only visitors for the entire year. We can never know how far a smile and a helping hand can go.
“It may have taken three and a half weeks on the road, traveling more than 6,000 miles [9,600 km.] across six states, living out of the trunk of a car, eating only tuna and crackers, corn flakes with soy milk, eggs and rice, but I now have a much greater appreciation of life in general and Judaism in particular. I would recommend such a trip to anybody.”
Kalmensohn chimed in. He said one prisoner told him a parable about a man who spent a long stretch of his life on an island, amassing onions, which were the currency of the island. “Let us not lose focus in our lives and amass bushels of onions,” the inmate told Kalmensohn, who was startled to hear the parable and the inspirational, spiritually-infused conclusion from the inmate.
“I bid him good-bye,” Kalmensohn said, “but not before making him promise me he would pursue the rabbinate when he left prison. I thought I was coming to inspire, but in reality I got inspired.”
SANTA FE-BASED Jane Davis has also been inspired by Jewish prisoners. “As a contributing writer for Prison Life magazine, I was always aware of a column by Sid Kleiner of the International Coalition for Jewish Prisoner Services [now Jewish Prisoner Services, Inc.] and out of curiosity I got in touch with him,” Davis explained. “I learned of the work being done by the Aleph Institute and the coalition, providing contacts and resources to as many of the 8,000 incarcerated Jews and their families as they could.
“I spent six hours secluded in a room in the bowels of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, as well as Metro Correctional Institute, a women’s prison in Georgia, listening to stories of lost souls. Something that I can only ascribe to my Jewish soul, my neshama, came forth. I responded to what I heard as an area of tremendous neglect and an area that our forefathers understood as a place to walk in spirit.
“The neglect was so astonishing to me that I could not turn my back. Some of the women had not had a visit from a rabbi in 10 years. As a result, they turned to Christianity and Islam. I became a volunteer in both facilities and went, every Shabbat, for seven years to the USP-Atlanta and met weekly with the women. I made sure every Jewish holiday was celebrated and brought community members in. I am still in touch with some of the people.”
As a result of her work, Davis was asked to be one of five required media witnesses for an electric chair execution on December 7, 1993. Two months after that horrific, traumatic experience, she awoke in the middle of the night with a vision of founding Hope- Howse, a service organization she still runs today ( Davis then wrote an article about the execution for the Atlanta Jewish Times called “I met God on death row,” and received an invitation from an attorney in North Carolina to visit his client on death row in Texas. She did, and then began searching out the handful of other Jews on death rows in the US.
“I was appalled at the lack of support or interest from the Jewish communities,” Davis said. “Rather than point fingers, I responded by doing the work myself. One of the men was told he would have a minister when he got his execution date. As a result, I was eventually ordained by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi so that I could be present in the execution chamber so that Jesus would not be evoked.
“The lack of Jewish involvement sends a powerful message to the majority of people running the prisons. Once, a Christian chaplain whispered to me, thinking we were bonding, ‘I know your people don’t care about these inmates!’ Prison is a humbling place to walk. Maybe everyone can’t go into a prison but they can support the work we are doing with Jewish inmates, on their behalf.”
When I asked Davis if Jews on death row are different from other inmates, she responded, “What comes to mind is an old incident where a man on death row fought to wear his yarmulke! He actually won but it was a fight. There was another case where inmates on death row were allowed to take Bibles in the yard. A Jewish inmate was stopped and his Bible taken away because the guard did not acknowledge it as a Bible.
They only allowed the New Testament.
What most Jews don’t realize is that the Jews in prison are fighting, often alone and at risk for their lives, to simply be a Jew.”
When asked how Jewish readers can help their incarcerated brethren, David replied, “I, and Hope-Howse along with Aleph and Jewish Prisoner Services, need their help. I have not been able to visit the men on death row. Can they donate miles and support some trips? This would be an amazing mitzva.”
It was moving for me to talk to others who had been deeply impacted by incarcerated Jews. They all concurred that their job is not judging or figuring out who is guilty and who is innocent; there are courts, juries, judges and the ultimate judge who do that.
People who hurt others are most often people who were hurt and need love and support.
And, like Joseph, if they can remain hopeful, optimistic and goal-oriented, perhaps they demonstrate a kind of success that those of us on the outside can learn from and be inspired by.