Soon after I became Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I received a call from a Chaplain at a private prison in Mississippi. Prior to this call, there had been no recent Jewish prisoners at the facility. They had experienced no need for a rabbi … until now.
I learned from the Chaplain that the prison had just received a new transfer from Arizona. The inmate had conflicting statements in his records. Some indicated he was Jewish. Some indicated he was Protestant. In addition, I learned that the inmate was threatening to hurt others and take his own life if he did not receive kosher meals. The Chaplain expressed this was an emergency situation and asked if I could come immediately.
As I drove to the correctional facility, my mind was racing. I had two primary tasks ahead: determine if the inmate was a threat to himself or others, and determine if he was or was not Jewish. For me, it was the latter that gave me great pause. I was about to sit in judgment upon another individual. I was going to be involved in something that is so personal and thus subjective, making a recommendation that would forever impact someone’s life.
Upon arrival at the prison, which stood on the side of Highway 49 like a large gated rest-stop, I was met by the Chaplain. He began to walk me around the head offices of the prison, introducing me to the Wardens. Additionally, I also had the privilege to meet many of the block captains, security officials, and office managers. Everyone was extremely warm and welcoming, expressing their thanks for my immediate response to their situation.
When the inmate, “R.S.”, was brought into the room, he was extremely agitated (had to be restrained). His frustration was understandable. Having just been transferred from a prison in Arizona, he was in a period of prison in-processing, where – for a week or two – he was allowed no access to his personal items, and given little information. Additionally, he is trying to get used to new guards, a new “cellie” (roommate), a new prison system, he’s on a hunger strike, and now here I am, trying to determine his faith. Any one of us would be equally as stressed.
Although I tried to express my understanding, he would have none of it. It’s not that he didn’t believe me. It’s that he didn’t even want to hear my voice, the chaplain’s voice, or any other voice besides his own. And so for a good hour, R.S. vented. This was okay with me. I just listened. And, this passive engagement with R.S. seemed to start working. Slowly he calmed down, lowering his tone, beginning to share a few details with me of who he was and what he felt was going on. The guards exited, leaving R.S., the Chaplain, and myself to finally engage in a productive conversation.
I told R.S. that it was a pleasure for me to meet with him, and, that my purpose in being here is first to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others, as well as to determine the issue over religious affiliation. While I wanted to get to the more serious life/death issue, R.S. wanted to engage in the religious issue. In the discussion that followed, I learned that R.S. was part of the Kosher Religious Diet Program in his old prison, and was studying with that prison’s Jewish Chaplain. Thus, per the rules and regulations of the prison, which I had handy during the meeting, R.S. was entitled to have that diet continued in the new facility (unless he sells or trades that food to others).
I also learned that R.S.’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. His mother was not observant – which mattered little in formulating his Jewish identity anyway, for he was raised by his maternal grandfather and his step-grandmother, in a Protestant home. But, R.S. informed me, his estranged mother did force him to have a Bar Mitzvah. He called it “one of the worst days in his life,” as many of the family problems erupted during the service. Shortly thereafter, R.S. started getting into trouble, eventually leading to conflicts with the law.
R.S. has been in prison since 2004 for armed robbery. Upon entering into this prison sentence, he began somehow to re-connect with his Jewish roots, studying with the former prison’s Jewish chaplain. He started observing rituals of Jewish prayer, diet, Shabbat, and more. So, in my professional opinion, R.S. is Jewish, at least in an early stage. Not merely because of his mother’s or maternal grandmother’s religious identity; rather, R.S. is Jewish – in my opinion – because he further identifies himself as such and actively engages in Jewish deeds.
With that sentiment expressed to the Chaplain as well as to R.S., he relaxed completely, allowing me to address the other reason for my visit: the prison’s concern that he is a danger to himself and others. R.S. emphatically said, “There had to be some mistake. While I am upset and may act out at times, it is not my intention to hurt anyone else, or myself.”
I then used my remaining moments with R.S. to review with him the sins that Judaism views as particularly dire: idolatry, inappropriate sexual relations, and murder. As keeping kosher is not one of these, I recommended that while waiting on kosher meals to arrive, he eat at least eat some of the vegetables, bread, and other such staples on the regular meal plate so as not to jeopardize his health. I expressed that doing this would also ensure that he would uphold another Jewish value, p’kuach nefesh. He smiled, for the first time that day, and said he would do so.
We ended with the Priestly Benediction and a hand shake, as R.S. was lead out of the meeting room to go back to his cell. Before I departed, the Chaplain and I spoke. He asked if I would be interested in coming up to the prison more regularly to help guide the Jewish program. Without reservation, I said I would be delighted. These are after all fellow Jews and no matter where they may reside, they have the right to be supported in their Jewish faith.
Judaism is not a luxury; Judaism is a necessity. Even when imprisoned, a Jewish person remains Jewish. A person of faith needs their faith while preparing to return to society. And nobody knows that more than these inmates and the spirited Chaplains who serve them.
As a circuit riding rabbi serving an entire region, Rabbi Klaven is a resource for wide swath of Southern Jews, including those behind bars. His “Passover Pilgrimage” program includes conducting seders at a correctional facility. The work of Beth Tikvah Jewish Prisoner Outreach provides a model, as well. Do you often think of Jews in jail? Does your community do any outreach to imprisoned Jews?
My name is Ann Zivitz Kimball, and I’m a proud Southern Jew.
Since “Southern & Jewish” is the name of this blog, and also a good description of me, I thought for my first blog post here that I’d share a little of my own story and perspective on the whole “Southern & Jewish” phenomenon.
My Southern roots are in Alabama and Louisiana (though I now live in Mississippi). Both sides of my family are from Mobile, Alabama, where my paternal grandmother was one of 9 children born to Polish/Austrian immigrants, Anne and Isadore Prince. She married my merchant grandfather. My maternal grandmother, a second-generation American born in Memphis, Tennessee, married my German immigrant grandfather who had settled in Alabama. My parents, Harrel & Betty Zivitz, married young at the Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, had 3 girls, and moved to Metairie, Louisiana.
I grew up in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. The Jewish population of the city was largely concentrated in the Uptown and Lakeview areas, because that is where the synagogues were located. In the suburbs, at that time, almost no one else was Jewish. But most of my parents’ closest friends were from Temple, and our families were often together, so I had Jewish friends. By virtue of my mother, our family was very active at Temple and I ended up involved in youth group and URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp (my home away from home). Friday nights and Sunday mornings during the school year, my family made the “journey” to Temple Sinai in New Orleans. It was only a 20–30 minute trek, but as a kid it seemed like forever. During the week, my two younger sisters and I attended public school just like everyone else in our neighborhoods, other than the Catholic kids. On average, there were only 2 to 4 other Jewish kids in my grade.
As a Southern & Jewish kid, I grew accustomed to answering questions about Judaism, and to having friends “pray for me,” but I very rarely encountered anything that I would call anti-Semitism. The very few times I remember any incidents were pretty minor: kids repeating stuff they heard older folks saying, without any real understanding. Ignorance, but not hatred.
As far as Jewish life in New Orleans, the city has maintained (pre- and post-Katrina) a thriving small/midsized community of about 10,000 Jews. There are 4 Reform, 1 Conservative, 2 Orthodox and 2 Chabad congregations, a small community day school, a large Jewish Community Center in New Orleans proper, and now a medium sized JCC in the suburbs – since, these days, there are more Jewish families living in the suburbs than when I was growing up.
I didn’t always think of New Orleans as “thriving,” though. I attended college at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I chose it for its dance program. Upon arriving at my dorm, I was greeted by a cadre of girls from small towns in Texas – and for the vast majority of them, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met!
I then realized that New Orleans, a place I had always considered a fairly small Jewish community, is a thriving Jewish metropolis when compared to truly small Southern towns. Beaumont showed me what a small Jewish community really looks like, as I attended the local synagogue and discovered Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews sharing a building.
My work at the ISJL truly goes hand in hand with my personal Southern & Jewish background. I “get it” when a rabbi tells me he is hoping to get a minyan for Shabbat, or a synagogue board member needs guidance on how to make a fundraiser work, or the volunteer spending hours of time promoting an event at Temple needs some extra support. We Southern Jews need to stick together, and support one another – while also maintaining the active role we’ve always played in our larger community.
That’s the Southern & Jewish way.
What do you think? Are you “Southern & Jewish”? Please feel free to share comments and stories about your own experiences. Both identities are so rich, the conversations are always intriguing!
This week marks the 21st anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. When these riots took place in 1991, I was ten years old, and living in the predominately African American and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, sitting in my office in Jackson, Mississippi, another community historically rocked by racial tensions, I feel the same loss and fear that I did that summer long ago.
I feel the loss of Gavin Cato, the 7 year old son of Guyanese immigrants who died when a Jewish car-driver ran him over, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Yeshiva student who was targeted and killed because of his Jewish identity. I also remember the fear each of the two communities had for the other. The fear that comes along with the lack of experience with and knowledge of another group of people. The fear that sat on the minds of community members for years before the riots broke out and that ultimately led to mistrust and violence.
But while remembering this fear, I also remember a very hopeful message.
A few years ago, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was asked to reflect on Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I wrote something not only about how it was then, but how it should be now. Jewish communities have played a critical role to play in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice – and must continue to do so.
The piece I wrote also followed a visit by two Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas and Lewis Zuchman. They came to the ISJL’s office to discuss how the Jewish community can be involved in this important commemoration of the anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Early on in the conversation, it became clear that the scope of their request was not limited to the particular event or to the city of Jackson. Hank Thomas delivered a message delicately framed as an expression of hope.
His message, “Reengage,” was rooted in his desire for Jewish participation as he educates others about the roles that Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement and aims to proactively counter anti-Semitism. More pertinently, it is based on a vision of global communities where Jewish communities and African American communities, in particular, are not isolated from each other. Instead, a strong foundation of meaningful and personal friendships and community relationships are present in all aspects of our daily life.
The 21st Anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots calls on us to reengage. We can pursue a racial reality that moves beyond structured programs such as interfaith dialogues. These programs often present information about groups of people and what “they” believe and “they” experience.
To reengage is to develop strong personal and communal relationships based on strengths, capabilities, knowledge, experience, compassion and interest. Re-engagement is an exchange of personal stories, concerns, losses, struggles, triumphs and priorities that collectively represent the unique “I”s and “you”s that sustain our communities. Generalizations disappear when we are not afraid to come out from behind the shields of “we” and personalize our discussions.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were on a clear mission: Civil Rights for all. The risks included death and there were many Jewish men and women who courageously participated. In 2012, as we mark the 21st anniversary of the riots, let’s work to build relationships—they are certainly not life-threatening and are, in fact, life-enhancing. It is our privilege to have a history of participation in the Freedom Rides. It is fear that pitted neighbors against each other during the riots.
The work of re-engagement, and civil rights, and all of this history, is complicated. But just because something is difficult does not mean we should avoid it. We must continue in this important work, always seeking not only to make our world better, but also to work more effectively and meaningfully with our neighbors as we collectively engage in the work. That is what will ultimately help eliminate such schisms that lead to painful events like the riots in Crown Heights.
Let us therefore carry on the mission of the Civil Rights movement and the appreciation of all people for who they are–and not the color of their skin, their economic status and all other barriers that keep people apart.
It is my hope that the message of Hank Thomas carries the weight of a directive that travels far beyond the walls of our office here in the Deep South, and Jewish organizations everywhere: Reengage!
In the South and beyond, there is important work to be done to repair our world. What are ways that you are engaging and re-engaging in bettering your community?