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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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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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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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RRC Helps to Bring Ali Abu Awwad to Philadelphia During Sukkot

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

Ali Abu AwwadAt the start of his talk in the main sanctuary of Germantown Jewish Centre, Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad joked that he has a hard time keeping track of the Jewish holidays. While he had learned the greetings corresponding to Rosh Hashanah—“Shanah tovah”—and Yom Kippur— “Gmar tov”— he hadn’t yet learned a greeting for Sukkot, the holiday we were celebrating when he spoke at GJC on Friday, October 10th, addressing a crowd of more than 100, including Christians and Muslims who regularly participate in programs of RRC’s Multifaith Studies Program.

Ali’s commitment to learning about the culture of his audience (and about Judaism in particular, which many Palestinians understandably associate with their oppression), and his willingness to admit the limits of his knowledge, provided a powerful example of his approach to peace-making. It begins with deeply listening to others in order to humanize oneself and the other side, and continues through the practice of non-violence.

Ali’s personal example of nonviolence particularly moved me. As a young man, Ali refused to take violent revenge against the people responsible for killing his brother.  Ali reflected on the practice of nonviolence--its power comes from the power of our inherent humanity. Non violence creates a safe space for the sides in a conflict to see each other’s truth. Contrary to popular perceptions, nonviolence is more powerful than violence.

I was also struck by Ali’s lucid presentation of the contradictions found at every level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are a few of them:

  • Despite being commonly referred to as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” there are other nations involved and their role is often not a constructive one
  • What the heart wants (revenge against those who have hurt you and/or your loved ones) may be at odds with what the mind wants (a successful solution to the conflict)
  • When those outside the conflict take sides (being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”) , it doesn’t help achieve a solution, indeed it worsens the problem
  • Israelis’ need for security leads them to support the continuing the occupation until Palestinians no longer resort to violence, but Palestinians can’t see the value of peace while the occupation continues

All of these contradictions make a solution to the conflict seem unlikely, but Ali stressed that the solution to the conflict does not lie in ideological purity and clarity. In fact, there are contradictions working in favor of peace, too. Ali told us about the Roots project which he co-directs, a Palestinian center for nonviolence situated between six Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s hard for someone who mainly sees the conflict through the lens of American media to imagine Jewish settlers and Palestinians with conflicting claims to the exact same land sitting down together for a civil discussion, but this is precisely what Roots creates.  Through this work, there was even a group of settlers, including rabbis, that took part in an interfaith fast for peace in Gaza on the 17th of Tammuz this summer. Ali asserted that a solution to the conflict will be a place where two truths fit, even if they are contradictory. (This reminded me of the wonderful Amichai poem, “The place where we are right.”) So in order to create peace, we must be comfortable with contradictions of this kind.

In reflecting on the opportunity to learn from Ali, I realized that the sukkah itself is a structure of contradictions. It must be solid enough to serve as a home for the duration of the holiday but it must be fragile enough that a strong wind would knock it down. It must have a roof, but the roof must have enough openings that the stars are visible through it. It also struck me that Ali could count among modern day ushpizin—special guests symbolically invited to reside in the sukkah in honor of their contribution to the survival of the Jewish people. I pray that through Sukkot and beyond we may be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions that will advance the cause of peace in Israel and Palestine and learning from ushpizin like Ali Abu Awwad and others.

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Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

Exciting news from PERL (Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders)! The leadership council proudly invites all local emerging religious leaders to their first public event Sunday, April 6. Check out the flyer below!

Funded through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Legacy Heritage Fund, PERL is an interfaith organization by and for seminarians, rabbinical students and graduate students who gather to build relationships, learn and practice the tools of interfaith dialogue, and pursue social justice together.

Now in its second year, the student leadership core has grown to include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sikh emerging leaders from local seminaries and universities.

The group has been actively involved with POWER, working on social justice issues in our city together. Next month, PERL is proudly offering its first major outreach program, an Interfaith Dialogue Training to build relationships and to learn and practice tools of interfaith dialogue.

See below for the event information and forward this news to anyone whom you think would be interested. Note that an "emerging religious leader" can be defined broadly to include seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students and professionals studying for or entering positions of leadership as clergy, teachers, academics, chaplains, counselors, faith-based professionals and lay leaders in their religious communities.

To RSVP for the event, contact: Raha Rafii, rafii@sas.upenn.edu
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:  joshweisman@gmail.com

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together

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First Year RRC Student Emerges as a Multifaith Leader

Our Multifaith Intern, first-year RRC student Josh Weisman, is already making a name for himself in the Philadelphia emerging religious leaders community. Recently, Josh became a contributing scholar at the State of Formation, a national interfaith blog for seminarians and young religious leaders. Below is his first post, in which Josh responds to the following question: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

Josh and Father GabrielInterfaith engagement can be more than just a goal for emerging religious leaders, it can be the path itself. I have been shaped at key moments on my journey towards becoming a rabbi by encounters with people from other religious traditions, and at each turn I have only been enriched by them.

During college I studied in Guatemala for a semester, where I did field research in a community of poor Catholics who had organized themselves out of a slum and into their own thriving neighborhood. Their story continues to be the most remarkable example of grassroots social change I have ever encountered. Through petitions, media advocacy, and civil disobedience they departed their disease- and crime-ridden shantytown, planted themselves on a plot earmarked for military officers’ homes, and won, against the government’s wishes, all the services of a functioning neighborhood: water, electricity, a school, a market, and eventually recognition of their legal status as owners of their lots. What set this community apart from so many others who had met with less success were the framework and communal bonds provided by their faith. In my dozens of conversations with grassroots leaders, they all spoke in the same terms: the slum they left was “Egipto;” their new community, “la tierra prometida;” their midnight journey between the two and crossing of a police cordon, their “éxodo.” They knew that God loved them, wanted a better life for them, and was on their side. They had organized themselves from the beginning through their church, were guided by priests along the way, and continued to base their organizing in their new parish.

Josh and JorgeFor me, as a young American Jew, this encounter with Guatemalan Catholics was a seminal experience. In many ways, my career since then has been an exploration of how religion can be such a powerful force for social change in communities closer to home. Yet while a parish on the outskirts of Guatemala City may seem like a faraway place for a Jew from California, what I found there was remarkably familiar. Their story – the Exodus – is also my Jewish story. They were living out the potential that I and so many contemporary Jews see in our tradition’s central narrative. I had traveled “beyond the sea,” as the Torah says, only to find what was already “very near” to me, already “in [my] heart,” which enabled me to begin to truly “observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:13-14).

Since then, organizing with Protestants and Catholics has taught me not only about their faiths, but more about my own. Praying in a mixed group of Sufis and Jews, I have glimpsed oneness through multiplicity, a core lesson of both our traditions. I have many rabbis for role models, but I also count a priest, a pastor, and an imam among my inspirations for becoming a rabbi. It is thanks to my relationships with all these people – including Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – that I have become the Jew I am.

Photos courtesy of Josh Weisman.

Photo Upper Left:  Later, I worked as a Congregation Based Community Organizer for the interfaith San Francisco Organizing Project. Here, Father Gabriel Flores and I participate in a vigil against deportations.

Photo Lower Right:  Me and Jorge Ibarra, a parish leader since the beginning in the organizing effort in Villalobos II, Guatemala City, and my main contact in the neighborhood, standing in the courtyard of his home. Like all homes in the neighborhood, Jorge's house was constantly under construction as money and supplies became available.

Josh WeismanJosh Weisman is studying to become a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Josh has been bringing people together for community building and social change for over 14 years. As a Congregation Based Community Organizer in San Francisco, he helped congregations put their religious values into action by joining together to campaign for policies that addressed pressing community problems. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Macalester College where he produced ethnographies on communities in Guatemala and Minnesota. Josh practices Jewish mindfulness meditation, and traditional ecstatic prayer and dance. He actively explores the intersection between spiritual practice and social justice. Josh is currently the Organizer for Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders, a new interfaith organization of leaders in formation who come together for social action, dialogue, and relationship building. Josh lives with his wife, Pella Schafer Weisman, a Marriage & Family Therapist, in Philadelphia.

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Interfaith Food Justice

We are thrilled to announce another exciting new learning opportunity this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Interfaith Food Justice course will examine the connection between food and our lives as well as food justice and sustainability.

The course will be co-taught by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (RRC) and Reverend Katie Day of Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTSP).

The flyer below provides the details:

Interfaith Food Justice

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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