By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?
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?