The last time I walked through the gates of a jail was more than twenty years ago, in upstate Wisconsin, where I often visited a small group of Jewish prisoners in a medium-security prison there.
Yesterday I boarded a bus in the parking lot at Rikers Island with representatives from the Osborne Association, an incredible organization that provides support and education for families of men and women incarcerated in the New York State system. CBE, under the leadership of our members David Goldberg and Wesley Weissberg, has been volunteering with Osborne for several months now. Community members have created children's play areas in a few facilities; organized family visits; and yesterday we attended the graduation ceremony of 18 men from Osborne's "Fresh Start" program at Rikers Island. The men received a certificate of graduation for their hard work in learning essential skills for employment upon their release from jail: computer skills, basic cooking skills, and maintenance skills.
By my estimation, among the 18 men were a couple Latinos, two whites, one Arab and thirteen African Americans. One of the endemic challenges of the American justice system in a microcosm.
Sitting in the audience at graduation was an incredible support group of family and friends, spouses, parents and children--all present to cheer on the men. Mantras were repeated over and over again. Two particularly stirring pieces of Torah that were shared: One Fresh Start instructor reminded the men about a famous scene from the film "Glory," when Denzel Washington urges on his soldiers with the words, "We're men, ain't we?" And this line was repeated by the instructor several times during his speech to the prisoners, in order to hammer home the point that the essential part of their rehabilitation was about taking responsibility as men. Another statement, echoed several times, was the simple phrase, "You can change three things in your life: People, Places and Things." Impossible to argue with that statement. It represented the steely reality of Choices these men would be facing as they prepared to leave Rikers Island.
I was asked to deliver the Invocation for the graduation ceremony and so elected to share two particular texts--the first from the morning blessings in which we thank God for "freeing the captive." In it I attempted to address not the desire to actually escape the jail but the desire to escape the circumstances, to break the bonds of darkness that kept one imprisoned in the cycle of bad decisions. Though never having been imprisoned or jailed myself, I've certainly been depressed; or caught in a cycle of poor decisions. Who hasn't? I tried to relate to that feeling, build a bond, through the words, "Free the captive, God, from the darkness that has held us down into the light of your life and wisdom." It was also important for me to attempt to quote some scripture that they might know, so I chose to recite a section of Psalm 23, not in any funereal sense as it's often read at death but rather as a sign of redemptive hope. I chose Robert Alter's rendering, "though I walk through the valley of deepest darkness" instead of the "valley of the shadow of death" and spoke to the men about the psalmist's sense of gratitude for the overflowing cup of family, teachers, community support during their time of struggle; and how they are standing now above a valley where "goodness and mercy can follow them--if they choose--all the days of their life."
I was so moved by these men and their families and as we walked about the room to shake hands afterward, one could see that the sense of promise in the air was stronger, it seemed, than the bright light that shone outside where our bus awaited us to deliver us to our own luxurious freedom. It's true, what the doctrines of Judaism teach: there's that light that hangs in the sky; and then there's the Source of Light, which burns forever.
Unquestionably, the challenges that lie ahead for these men and their families are great. I am so proud that our CBE community will continue to do its part to help them in the months ahead.
If you want to get involved, let me know.