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Category: Social Justice

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.


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.


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.


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  Space is limited - register early at Mishkan Shalom's website.

Crime and Punishment in the USA Today



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 or 215.576.0800 x 135 by Tuesday, February 24, 2015.



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 or Shoulder to Shoulder,

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


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.


The Best Revenge Is Reconciliation

Here is a post about our Ali Abu Awwad event by our multifaith colleague, Krystin Komarnicki:

Ali-Abu-Awwad-10.10.14I had the enormous privilege today of hearing the radical Palestinian peacemaker Ali Abu Awwad speak at a synagogue in Philadelphia. The son of woman who belonged to the PLO, Awwad was raised in
the highly politicized atmosphere of Israeli-Occupied Palestine and participated in the first intifada. But after four years of imprisonment during which he discovered, via a 17-day hunger fast, that nonviolent
resistance holds a mirror up to one’s enemy, his journey to peacemaking had begun.

“It’s not about taking sides,” he said. If you are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, you are not helping. You need to be pro-solution. “It’s not about being right. It’s about willing to succeed.”

After his release from prison, an Israeli citizen shooting at Palestinians from his car shot Awwad in the knee, leaving him severely injured. Hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Awwad learned that his older brother had been violently murdered at an Israeli checkpoint, leaving behind two young children. The grief and anger Awwad experienced felt bottomless and “as big as a planet,” and he realized that no revenge—no number of Israeli deaths—could ever make up what had been taken from him. “I knew then that I couldn’t kill anyone,” he said.

One day several members of the Bereaved Families Forum asked his mother for permission to come see her. They were Israeli parents who had lost children to the conflict and wanted to meet with Palestinian parents who had survived similar losses. To Awwad’s surprise—”Israelis were always in Palestine and they were not welcome. Now here were Israelis asking permission to come see us!”—his mother agreed to receive them. He saw an Israeli person cry for the first time in his life, and something shifted within him. Awwad and his family soon joined the bereavement group, partnering with Israelis in spreading a message of reconciliation and calling one and all to the hard work of nonviolence.

The best revenge for his brother’s death, says Awwad, is to reconcile with the enemy. “The men who killed my brother wanted to bury my humanity along with my brother,” he said. By refusing to use violence, by working instead toward partnership and political solutions, Awwad and his friends of both nationalities are choosing a very different path.

Learn about the Roots project, of which Awwad is an important part. Roots seeks to build trust between trust and partnership between Israelis and Palestinians.

Read or listen to Krista Tippett’s 2012 interview with Awwad on Public Radio International.

(Special thanks to our peacemaking, bridgebuilding partners at Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for hosting this talk.)

2014 Evangelicals for Social Action


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,
To contact PERL Organizer and RRC rabbinical student Josh Weisman:

Working Towards Our Interfaith Future Together


Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 14th, 2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at or 215.576.0800 x 252 by Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.

For more information about the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, please visit: