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Ethics of a Philadelphia Jail

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders …” So begins Pirke Avot,”Ethics of the Sages,” the ancient collection of rabbinic wisdom that many Jews are reading now, the period between Passover and Shavuot, which corresponds to the mythic time covering the journey from Egyptian slavery to the Sinai revelation of how to live as a free people. When I had the opportunity to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in the Philadelphia jail system a few sayings from Pirke Avot came to mind.

“Find yourself a teacher” (Pirke Avot 1.6, 16)

I had the opportunity to visit the jail, along with a group of other participants in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class, thanks to two remarkable teachers: Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director of RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, who organized the class, and Chaplain Phyllis Taylor, who tirelessly served inmates and staff in CFCF for 18 years and has helped countless people to learn about the criminal justice system with great depth and compassion.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful face.” (1:15)

At CFCF Chaplain Taylor wisely left most of the teaching to the correctional officers (COs), but she did tell us that it is her practice to greet every inmate with a warm smile and a wave. As we were walking back to our cars on the outside of the razor-wire topped fence I heard a sound I mistook for a crackling microphone but Phyllis knew it was the sound of inmates tapping on their windows to get her attention, perhaps just to make some contact with the outside world, and she responded by turning to wave at the windows even though nobody could be seen through the one-way glass. I followed Phyllis’s advice and example and hopefully brought inmates at least a confirmation that someone sees them as a human being, which is a feeling that might be all too rare as an inmate. In the process, I realized that part of the wisdom of this teaching is that it can catalyze a human connection with others, which is especially important when the stigmatized differences and between the people meeting might make such a connection unlikely. In my case, that of a white free person encountering black incarcerated people, I very much needed this catalyst.

“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14)

So this is not a saying from Pirke Avot, but the rabbis made the broad implications of this biblical statement explicit—it applies to any situation in which a person is put in a situation that makes some harmful failure unavoidable. Many of the conditions at CFCF, if just taken alone, would amount to placing a stumbling block before the blind—e.g., overcrowding, isolation from the outside world, inadequate opportunities for education/work/religious expression, untreated mental illness, vulnerability to exploitation at the hands of other inmates, lack of hope in the future, dehumanizing bureaucratic treatment—but the combination of them seem to make it inevitable that inmates will harm themselves, each other and correctional officers. Phyllis shared her opinion that real rehabilitation is extremely rare in such circumstances. The correctional officer who led our tour said that the rare inmate who “gets it” and commits to changing his conduct does so because jail is so awful and he never wants to have to return. (Of course, given the challenges of reentry, even firmly committing to change one’s is no guarantee against recidivism.)

“Don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place.” (2.5)

CFCFThe officer who led our tour of CFCF started out by welcoming us to referred to “the crown jewel” of the Philadelphia Prison System. This expression made members of our group uncomfortable—how can any jail be a “crown jewel”?!—but it made more sense over time. Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is named in honor of Warden Patrick N. Curran and Deputy Warden Robert F. Fromhold, who were murdered at Holmesburg Prison on May 31, 1973. While these are the only two officers knows to have been killed on duty in the Philadelphia Prison System, the threat of violence still looms over the place. I asked the officer who led our tour if seeing the same inmates coming into jail again and again over the years makes him feel his work isn’t worthwhile and he said no, the only way he measures success is by whether every member of his team makes it out of the jail at the end of the day in the same condition in which they came in. Chaplain Taylor told us that while some of the rules governing the jail may seem extreme—e.g., the extensive intrusive searches entering inmates undergo and the prohibition against normal toothbrushes—they are responses to tragedies involving harm suffered by inmates and/or COs. Because of CFCF’s particular design, which makes the mass movement of inmates unnecessary, and the fact that it is air-conditioned, which tempers from igniting in Philly’s steamy summer weather, CFCF is known as the safest jail for COs.

Given the harmful but understandable internal logic that appears to govern places like CFCF, it seems incredibly unlikely that large scale positive change, moving away from Egypt and towards Sinai, will originate from within it. In order for change to happen, those of us on the “outside” will need to become informed and take sustained action. The starting point, though, is to truly care about people who are incarcerated.

I find a pathway to this starting point in the words of Rabbi Hananiah ben Gamliel. According to the Torah, there is a limit placed on how many lashes a guilty person can receive “lest, being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (Deut. 25:3). Rabbi Hananiah said, “Behold, since he [the criminal] has been flogged, he is like your brother” (b Megillah 7b). This is how we should regard those who have been punished in the criminal justice system created by our elected officials and funded with our taxes.

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Crime and Punishment: The Darkness and the Light

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

I once heard these words, “Moses approached the darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18),” explained as follows: That’s where God can be found, in the darkness.

My participation in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class has exposed me to a truly disturbing amount of darkness. The staggering, heart-wrenching pain and violence existing around, and all too often produced by, the criminal justice system devours offenders, their victims and the people and communities connected to them. But as the Exodus verse suggests, learning of this darkness has also exposed me to impressive godliness.

E.M.I.R. Mural ArtworkFor this session on Crime and Punishment, class coordinator Chaplain Phyllis Taylor brought us to EMIR (Every Murder is Real). Founded by the mother of 20-year old murder victim Emir Greene, EMIR supports the healing process of murder victims’ families and their communities.

We first heard about the challenges of returning citizens’ reentry into society from Hannah Zellman, anti-mass incarceration activist and Program Director of the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ). She described the criminal justice system as the “apex of systems of oppression,” including racism and white supremacy, poverty and the effects of capitalism, homophobia and transphobia, and more. The ICJ drop-in center provides a safe, stigma-free space, classes and trainings to returning citizens facing the extremely daunting task of reentering a world that has changed while they were behind bars. She told us about one man who thought everyone was crazy after his release because he saw them all walking around talking to themselves—he had never seen anyone using Bluetooth. Despite Philadelphia’s progressive “ban the box” ordinance, Ms. Zellman finds it hard to give the people she serves hope that they will find a job in this city where there aren’t enough jobs to begin with, and when formerly incarcerated people often lack the support and skills to stay in a job if they are lucky enough to find one. The near impossibility of finding a job is one of the biggest reasons that people commit crimes again. 

Still, Ms. Zellman is constantly amazed by the incredible potential people have for transformation. She told us the story of a woman who was incarcerated and lost the custody of one of her children. She would push his old, empty stroller around to mark her pain at his absence; through her own resilience and extensive work with advocates, this woman learned to manage her rage and recently regained custody of her child. In light of this story, Ms. Zellman’s admission that she only goes to synagogue on the Jewish High Holidays makes perfect sense, as that is the time of year we celebrate the power of teshuvah, human transformation.

As we turned from the challenge of societal reentry to the experience of victims, Ms. Zellman and Chantay Love, EMIR’s Program Director, agreed that people overemphasize the distinction between offenders and victims, because invariably the offenders have been victimized on multiple levels, which plays a powerful role in leading to their crime. Ms. Love told us that the murder of a family member breaks the family system to such a degree that the surviving family members have to relearn how to do such simple things as eat a meal together. Individual family members also have to adjust—mothers have to find the strength to wake up in the morning and go back to work, fathers have to learn how to look at their surviving children and once again show up in the role of dad. 

Amidst all this darkness, however, godliness was powerfully present. EMIR helps victims’ families to find their healing and sometimes even brings healing to those who have committed murder. EMIR works with victims’ families to express their desires for the murderer’s punishment, desires which often include a request for compassion - which surprises the District Attorney, who is usually seeking a harsher penalty. Ms. Love told us about one family that asked for a lighter sentence for their daughter’s killer because the killer suffers from HIV; the victim’s family hoped she would be released in time to spend some time with her family.

This darkness I have come to see in and around the US criminal justice system is especially striking to me because of another kind of darkness—my relative ignorance, until recently, of all of this suffering. While I have become largely desensitized to much of the daily horror that exists in our world, the horrors of our criminal justice system are new to me and as such stand out starkly.  

I close with this prayer, translated from Leon Gieco’s song Solo le Pido a Dios:

I only ask of God

That I not be indifferent to pain.

That dry death not find me empty,

Having failed to do enough.

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A Time for Free Speech... And More of It

The post was originally published in the Huffington Post.

When Justice Louis Brandeis affirmed the freedom of speech in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, he was well aware that such liberty made possible the "dissemination of noxious doctrine." As Jews and Christians in Philadelphia prepared for the weekend in which we celebrate Passover and Easter, just such sickening sentiments began appearing on 84 buses in our public transit system.

These advertisements are paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-Muslim hate group. However misleading and destructive these messages may be, they are protected under the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.

For several months now, under the leadership of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, Jews, Christians, Muslims and representatives of a wide range of religious and civic groups have been meeting to plan a response. Although we were appalled by the ads, we were equally clear that the authors had every right to tell their story. It became obvious that it was our job was to tell a better story, to craft a more redemptive and hopeful message.

And what better week than this one to do just that?

On Passover, our dinner table service comes in a book known as the "Haggadah," literally, the "telling." The story we tell is one about freedom and the message comes through loud and clear: no one is really free until everyone is free. During a long night of talking, we speak of freedoms achieved and yet to be achieved, of struggles in the past and ongoing, of the hope that someday all who are hungry will eat the bread of freedom together.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, wrote in 1942 in his New Haggadah, "Men can be enslaved in more ways than one." The Haggadah goes on to talk about the enslavement of intolerance, both for those who are the subjects and those whose minds are shackled by the ignorant ideas. It speaks about "the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind."

The Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach can be read as two words: "Peh sach," meaning the mouth that speaks. On Pesach, we resolve to put our mouths to work in the service of freedom and of redemption. In Philadelphia this week, we need to counter the harsh words with words of love, the mean spirited messages with words of welcome.

While the express purpose of the bus ads is to create divisions among citizens of our city, this episode has had just the opposite effect. It is bringing us all together with a shared vision of a city of "brotherly/sisterly love," expressed this week through press conferences, counter ads, websites and petitions.

Justice Brandeis would be pleased. As he put it, "the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones."

If you want to help with these efforts to drown out the hate, add your own voice! Go to DaretoUnderstand.org

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Standing With American Muslims, Upholding American Values

This post was originally published in the Jewish Exponent.

With news from Paris, Copenhagen, North Carolina and Iraq filling the morning papers these days, many of us are wondering: What is going on in the Muslim world? How are Muslims in America responding and, most importantly, how can Jews and Christians ally with Muslims to help uphold the values of religious pluralism on which America is based?
 
The Islamic Society of North America, known as ISNA, the largest membership organization of Muslims in America, has partnered with Christian groups and, more recently, with Jewish ones — including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — as together they address the challenges of integrating Muslim Americans into the religious landscape of our country.
 
Now, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has joined that effort, establishing a new partnership with the organization. For five years, RRC has been sponsoring retreats for emerging Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum.
 
Going forward, these relationship-building retreats will be co-sponsored by ISNA. Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the founder and former executive of ISNA, now in charge of its office of interfaith relations, was in Philadelphia recently to “shake hands” on the collaboration and to meet with our interfaith leaders and guide our thinking about these issues.
 
The meeting brought together rabbis, ministers, imams, professors of religion and interested citizens as we all pondered how to meet the challenge of yet another religious minority finding its place in the American story.
 
There are now some 6 to 7 million Muslims in this country, around the same number as Jews. Like Jews, they represent only 1 to 2 percent of the American population. A recent Pew study showed that only 38 percent of Americans actually know a Muslim.
 
Many Americans are left to rely on the media coverage of events outside this country, such as the rise of ISIS, a group that has terrorized Muslims themselves because they consider all Muslims who do not agree with them to be apostates.
 
But the media has been less effective at reporting the fact that these groups have repeatedly denounced ISIS and other Muslims who commit terrorist acts.
 
It is a sad irony that a recent tragedy — the killing of three Muslim graduate students in North Carolina last month — has had an unexpected side effect. Many Americans saw the story of these morally earnest, accomplished young people — committed to their faith and their lives as American citizens — and found a different face of Islam than that of the Middle Eastern fanatic with a gun. These three students were typical second-generation American Muslims and their stories are the ones more Americans need to hear.
 
A report from the Center for American Progress, “Fear, Inc.,” documents how a small but well-funded “Islamophobia Network” churns out much of what we hear about Islam on Fox News and other media outlets.
 
No wonder that in that same Pew study last summer, when Americans were asked to rate religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 1 to 100, the public viewed Muslims coldly. In fact, they received the lowest rating of all groups. The good news here is that these ratings can change over time. Jews may be surprised to learn that they were rated highest of all the groups. That would not have been true 60 years ago.
 
And there is more good news. Just as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927 to respond to anti- Catholic sentiment in this country, later did important work in combating anti-Semitism, so, too, allies from diverse religious traditions are striving to promote a more robust pluralism in this country today.
 
I am proud to join Jews from across the denominational spectrum as an active member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a project of ISNA that was established in 2010 with the help of a coalition of Jewish and Christian organizations in response to anti-Muslim sentiment expressed around the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero.”
 
As our meeting at RRC was concluding, participants were exchanging email addresses and making plans to educate themselves and their communities. A board member from Masjidullah, a mosque in West Oak Lane, just minutes from RRC, invited everyone to join them at their weekly Friday afternoon services.
 
Our high school students can meet one another through Walking the Walk, a project of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia. Scores of examples of successful Muslim-Jewish programs of engagement can be found in the online resource book Sharing the Well.
 
Meetings like this one are just a beginning. As Jews, our experience as a religious minority in this country makes us a valued partner. Even more importantly, our ethics and our religious teachings compel us to join the struggle.

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, April 17, 2015

Emergent Mind - Philip Clayton

If you are unable to attend our breakfast but would like to hear Philip present this program, consider attending the event at Chestnut Hill College on Thursday, April 16th from 7:00 until 9:00 PM.

Our breakfast is by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

 

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Crime and Punishment in the USA Today

Co-Sponsored by Mishkan Shalom, the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives is pleased to offer a special course for the Spring of 2015:  Crime and Punishment in the USA today.  For more information, contact Nancy Fuchs Kreimer at nfuchs-Kreimer@rrc.edu.  Space is limited - register early at Mishkan Shalom's website.

Crime and Punishment in the USA Today

 

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon/Potluck Shabbat Dinner on Friday, March 6, 2015

The Multifaith Studies and Initiative department hosting events with Moriel Rothman-Zecher on Friday, March 6, 2015.  See the flyer below for details:

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

For more information about Mori's blog, please visit The Leftern Wall.

Here is the link to Mori's recently published Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, Why I Won’t Serve Israel.

These programs are by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

 

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Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 27, 2015

Breakfast Salon on February 27, 2015

 

Due to the overwhelming response, the  location of our breakfast salon has changed.  We are now hosting this event at the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College at 1299 Church Road, Wyncote, PA 19095.

For more information about ISNA, please visit http://www.isna.net/ or Shoulder to Shoulder, http://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/

Our breakfast is by invitation only. Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at JHollenbach@rrc.edu or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, February 17, 2015.

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Seek Peace and Pursue It—a Multifaith Workshop

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

Seek Peace and Pursue It

Towards the end of the workshop he led on multifaith peace-building with Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Daniel Roth, Ph.D., shared a joke he heard in his home synagogue years ago. Someone in the synagogue pointed to the line in the prayerbook, “The students of the rabbis [lit. sages] increase peace in the world,” and quipped, “This is evidence that the prayerbook has a sense of humor!” The subtext, of course, is the idea that religion is good for destroying peace, not creating it. Rabbi Roth told us that he has devoted himself to proving that, on the contrary, religion—in this case, Judaism—can help us to “seek peace and pursue it,” in the language of the psalmist (psalm 34).

It is too bad the person who told Rabbi Roth this joke couldn’t be at RRC this past Sunday, when Rabbi Roth, along with his colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg, brought together 30 adherents of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism for a workshop on peace building in our communities. I am pleased to report that no people of faith were harmed in the course of the workshop, and furthermore I’m confident that we all came out of it with new resources, interfaith understanding and a renewed commitment to pursuing peace.

This was due above all to our teachers, of course, and I’ll share some of what they taught below, but just as creating the most lasting peace requires involvement from all parties to a conflict, so the diverse participants in the workshop shared from their own perspectives and traditions. I was especially struck by the words of a Muslim participant, who declined to state her affiliation with a specific mosque because of her respect for the ideal that Muslims should attend all mosques. I hope for the day when there will be the value, or better yet the realization, of a similar respect for our diversity among Jews. This would certainly increase the peace in our community.

Roth’s fervent commitment to utilizing Jewish sources to equip people to be pursuers of peace has led him to amass an incredible wealth of peacebuilding wisdom and to create a series of exciting and growing initiatives putting this wisdom into practice. One example is the observance of the 9th of Adar as “a Jewish day of constructive conflict” and also programs in North American Jewish day schools.

On Sunday he led the group in the study of traditional Jewish texts spanning millennia which can shed light on the effort to pursue peace. We studied the text in chevruta (pairs), a traditional way to learn and, Roth taught us, an indigenous Jewish form of training in conflict resolution, when done well. One aspect of the texts that struck me was their focus on Moses’ brother Aaron, who the rabbinic tradition defined as the quintessential pursuer of peace. Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, who helps to train peace builders in his role as director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, writes that “this raises some important issues … about whether the field of conflict resolution has focused too much on skills and not enough on the formation of character, namely, the ideal personality of the peacemaker.”

Rabbi Eilberg, who has decades of experience as a chaplain and spiritual director has spent the last decade pursuing peace in a range of contexts , including interfaith and Israel-Palestine. She recently published the book From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, devoted much of her time to just this topic,

She led us through rich and challenging exercises to help us develop empathy for an adversary and to define the middot (spiritual virtues or qualities of soul) required for the pursuit of peace and reflect on which virtues we may have in the right amount and which we may have not enough of, or, equally problematic, too much of.  With the guidance of Eilberg’s teaching and my chevruta, I was able to start exploring the complexities of the spiritual virtue of peacebuilding that I find most challenging, courage.

Roth and Eilberg did not try to paint an idyllic picture of religion’s role in conflict, however. Instead, they encouraged all of us to admit the reality that all of our traditions have texts and traditions that can be used to justify conflict and inflict pain. This is the inherent ambiguity of our sacred texts. But just as, according to one midrash Roth shared, for every halacha (Jewish law) there are 49 ways to prove it and 49 ways to refute it, so Eilberg and Roth convinced me that there must be at least as many ways that our religions can create peace as the number of ways they can create conflict.

Seek Peace and Pursue ItOur time with Roth and Eilberg was too short, but I’m glad to know that they also taught a week-long class attended by 13 students and graduates of RRC. If we had more time I would have liked to hear what these teachers and model pursuers of peace would recommend for creating peace in situations with dramatic power imbalances between the parties to the conflict.

 

 

 

Photos: Sharon Gershoni

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