Prison Reform: A Jewish Imperative?

prison

The Orthodox social justice organization Uri L'Tzedek has declared this week (on which we read in the weekly Torah portion about Joseph's release from Pharaoh's prison) to be Jewish Prison Reform Week. For anyone interested in considering this issue from an Orthodox social justice perspective, here is an article by that organization's founder and president, the indefatigable Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

Prison Reform: A Torah Perspective on the American Crisis (2007)

Outlining the basic state of American prisons today, and providing a brief history of the American penal system and its antecedents, Rabbi Yanklowitz then turns his attention to Biblical penal concepts, Talmudic penal law, and later rabbinic concepts of criminal justice. "Our Torah values and moral convictions place responsibility upon the American Jewish community to advocate for better conditions within prisons and for more creative solutions for rehabilitation than are currently being provided," he writes.

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Uri L'Tzedek's Prison Reform Campaign...

Jews for "Race Revolution"

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The Negro's insistence that everyday practice in America match its democratic promise is bringing about significant changes in our society. The Race Revolution has already affected and will continue to affect Jews, Jewish life and Jewish communal services.

Continuing our Black History Month blog series, for this week's J-Vault we'll sit in on an educational symposium which took place in 1964. This week, from the J-Vault: Changing Race Relations and Jewish Communal Service (1965)

In February, 1964, over 300 Jewish communal workers in the New York metropolitan area attended a one-day conference at the Educational Alliance in New York City... The keynote speaker, Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, and the workshops, which were organized on an inter-disciplinary basis, were asked to consider the following three key questions:

1. How can and should Jewish agencies participate in the race revolution?
2. How can and should Jewish agencies help their members or clients to deal with their attitudes and behavior toward Negroes?
3. How will this affect the agencies' primary Jewish purposes and services?

The major address was delivered by Arthur Hertzberg:

It requires no great moral courage to assert, and even to mean, that every American who lays claim to personal decency must be involved in the struggle for the equality of the Negro... Speaking only for myself, I have acted on the assumption that the task of a Rabbi is not only to preach abstractly against segregation but involve himself concretely in the realities of the battle and to lead those whom he can influence towards comparable action...

...The moral position is clear: segregation is immoral and abhorrent to Judaism... The mandate of this generation, in the light of the acuteness of the problem of race in American society, is for Jews to be in the forefront in the solution of the problem.

This position has many virtues... Nonetheless, it is only a partial truth. To call it into question runs the risk that he who would do so will forthwith be accused of dragging his feet on segregation... Nonetheless, this danger must be risked, and precisely for the sake of a true and realistic Negro-Jewish understanding.

Hertzberg's address goes on, including sections with the following headings:

Defining Jewish Identity in More Than Negative Terms

A Clear and Positive Value—Philanthropy—Is Losing Its Force for Particularism

The Necessity for Jewish Institutions to Reinforce Particularism

Parallelism and Differences in Negro and Jewish Minorities

He concludes with the following:

The Negro is today fighting for his rights, and Jews, along with all other men of good will, must certainly stand beside him. But Jews are today also continuing to work at preserving and trying to define the meaning of their particular survival and identity, in the light of their own tradition and historic experience. Since this is a parochial concern of their own, they must here stand alone.

Our age does not like aloneness; it seems to prefer togetherness on every level. But any serious Jewishness must live in tension between that which unites it with others even in the most moral of struggles and that which sets it uniquely apart.

Solomon Geld spoke on "Implications for Jewish Homes for the Aged".

Irving Greenberg spoke on "Implications for Jewish Casework Agencies," arguing, in effect, for affirmative action in social services: that such agencies "should set aside a portion of our existing services for Negro clients."

Morris Grumer spoke on "Implications for Jewish Vocational Services."

Albert D. Chernin, speaking on "Implications for Jewish Community Relations," took issue with Hertzberg:

 What troubles me is that Rabbi Hertzberg in posing the issue as a clash between Jewish survival and the civil rights revolution does an injustice to both issues and to his own convictions. I am concerned that his arguments may be seized upon by some as justification for turning aside from the problem searing American society...

...The universal character of the struggle need not pose a threat to Jewish particularism. The particularism of Judaism is the process for perpetuating the universal truths to which it is committed.

Walter Ackerman discussed "Implications for the Jewish School."

Walter A. Lurie addressed "Implications for Jewish Community Organization."

Harold Arian spoke on "Implications for the Jewish Community Center:"

In short, the full weight of the Jewish community center as a social institution, as a business operation, as an educational force and as a participant in planning for community improvement should bear upon its fulfilling an important role in the race revolution.

Every J-Vault post ends with a link to the document so you can "Read More" but in this case, there really is so very much more to read. The above shows only the sparest of skeletons of an amazing 42 page document. If you want to reflect about race in America and our (the Jewish community's) relationship to it, do yourself a favor and avail yourself of these links below.

Read more...

Download directly...

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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

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On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

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Jonathan Pollard, the Irvine 11, and the Mikado

Pollard-Biden

From The New York Times on Friday:

“President Obama was considering clemency [for Jonathan Pollard], but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time,’ ” Biden said during a meeting with rabbis in Boca Raton, Fla., according to the newspaper. “If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”

The headline of the piece: "Obama Turns to Biden to Reassure Jewish Voters, and Get Them to Contribute, Too." That being the case, I suppose one must give credit to the Vice President for passing up an opportunity to pander to his rabbinic audience.

Pollard's case is a source of righteous outrage for some Jews, and a source of ambiguity and unease for others. Speaking personally, I believe Pollard committed a serious crime and deserved jail time. Individual citizens cannot be free to choose which nations can see classified governmental information, no matter how harmless their choice. There is a principle at stake.

Still, for all that, the sentence is vastly -- and cruelly -- out of proportion to the crime. Pollard ought not be pardoned, but he should certainly have his sentence commuted and be freed at once.

Disproportionate punishment makes a mockery of justice as much as crime does... Therefore, I also believe the punishment doled out to the Irvine 11 was excessive. I agree with my colleague Stefanie (who posted on this subject earlier today) that the students' conduct was unacceptable, but three years of probation is a very serious and constraining business indeed; these students deserved a semester of academic probation, not a criminal charge.

Jonathan Pollard and the Irvine 11: not the most natural of pairings. Yet both together bring to mind what W.S. Gilbert reminded us: the punishment should fit the crime.

Herman Cain Would Ban Mosques; Why Not Synagogues?

Herman Cain

"Let's  go back to the fundamental issue," said Herman Cain, while arguing that localities have a right to ban mosques. "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

Mr. Cain, does traditional Judaism count as "any one of our traditional religions"? If so, you've got a problem.

Cain apparently defines "religious purposes" as being inherently different from legal purposes. This conception of religion, however, carries a blatantly Christian (not to mention Protestant) bias. For many religious believers, true religion requires submission to Divine law, and for these groups, establishing a religious community requires establishing local religious courts.

This is certainly true of traditional Judaism, in which Halakhah (Jewish law) regulates every detail of Jewish life -- ritual, ethical, economic, civil, and quotidian. Not a single moment of the traditional Jew's day, no matter how seemingly trivial, is free from countless strictly defined mandates. Since disputes are bound to arise, the rabbinic court (bet din / beis din / beth din; pick your transliteration) has been a central institution for thousands of years. This has held true even in modern America. While the separation of religion and state has required the abandonment of the European model of state-supported rabbinic institutions, rabbinic courts operate on a voluntary basis in all American cities with significant Orthodox Jewish populations, and many Orthodox Jews make use of such courts to settle disputes within the community in accordance with Halakhah. The New York-based Beth Din of America, for example, handles not only ritual and family issues such as conversion, marriage, and divorce, but also civil and economic cases, all in accordance with Torah injunctions.

Nor do these institutions operate with complete independence from the secular legal system. Parties to rabbinic cases can enter into binding arbitration agreements, mandating compliance with rabbinic decisions by force of secular law. New York and Maryland have both instituted secular laws intended to help Jewish women avoid becoming agunot-- a problem which exists only within the framework of Jewish law -- "wall of separation" notwithstanding.

In the first half of the 20th Century, some Jews sought out rabbinic courts specifically in order to avoid prejudice in the secular legal system. That was an era during which being Jewish was seen as being foreign, and Jewish religion was seen as inherently sinister. Today it is Islam which is seen, quite unfairly, as being inherently foreign and sinister. (Yes, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but lumping the world's billion Muslims in with a tiny, extremist fraction is foolish.) At a time when Presidential candidates score points by demonizing Islam, some American Muslims must see local Shari'a courts and local Islamic communal institutions as being more necessary than ever.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written that "If the religious community cannot define itself, cannot set rules for membership, including rules of behavior, then it is not, in any realistic sense, a religious community. This implies that protection of religious freedom requires a high degree of deference to the definitional process within that community..." (God's Name in Vain, 176.) Herman Cain and others who support anti-Islamic legislation are free to argue that Prof. Carter is wrong, and that religion must be prevented from operating as a legal system in any form. But if they wish to maintain that their position is not motivated by an unfair demonization of Islam, then they must apply this principle consistently, across the board. They must be willing to take a stand against Jewish legalistic practice and Jewish legal institutions as well. They must protest outside the Beth Din of America, and rail against rabbis sneaking Halakhah into the secular legal system.

If they will not do so (and I cannot imagine that they will), their supposed concern for the separation of religion and state will stand revealed as a fig leaf for simple prejudice.

Wiesel at Wagner

by Aimee Gonzalez

(cross-posted at Wagner Today)

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, whom many consider to be the most articulate witness of the Holocaust and whose work, Night, has become a classic account of that time, visited New York University’s Puck Building on April 12th with the Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship and the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. In light of his most recent publication, An Ethical Compass, and the general theme of social entrepreneurship Wiesel discussed ethos, and why we need it to advance society.

Speaking to a room filled with students, community members and faculty, Wiesel asked, “Where are we? With so many changes, convulsions, what is happening to the world? We need a historic compass,” to situate and orient ourselves. That compass is ethos.

For Wiesel, ethos “is a choice between good and evil. How can we make such a distinction? First decide what is not good—anything involving humiliation of the other.” He discussed Hitler and Stalin’s use of their leadership position to preach an ethos that was not truly there—and was instead a way to justify millions of deaths. Wiesel reminded his audience that “the choice is always in our hands.” He gives the example of the SS (Hitler’s protection force that grew into a paramilitary organization), emphasizing that they had a choice. In fact, it was a voluntary position; no one should ever believe that they were coerced.

Given Wiesel’s life story, references to Hitler and Nazi Germany are inevitable. However, he also defines ethos as generally “respect[ing] the other for whatever the other is.” His childhood love for the others in his community, beggars and madmen, grew into the social activism he is well known for today. To illustrate this respect for the other, he gave the example of his visit to German President Johannes Rau, in which he pointed out that the one thing Germany had never done was to ask the Jewish people for forgiveness. In 2000, Rau flew to Israel and went before the Knesset, and wrote letters to survivors, asking for forgiveness.

Wiesel gave another example of his social activism, the mediation between the Minister of Apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela. After many days of frustration, he “took them into a room and said, ‘talk to each other.’ That was the beginning of the end of apartheid.”

His policy of respecting the “other” in others has earned Elie Wiesel recognition and reputation beyond his story of survival. Although he has written extensively about his experience, and especially the challenge of writing about the Holocaust, he has also been an activist on behalf of other humanitarian causes. (See, for example, this 2000 open letter of advice to then-President Clinton regarding the situation in Sudan.) Wiesel has also established a foundation to combat injustice and indifference worldwide.

Browse the BJPA for more resources on the Holocaust, Holocaust Education, Genocide, Human Rights, Global Responsibility, and Ethics.

International Agunah Day

Today is Ta'anit Esther, and also International Agunah Day, a day recognizing the struggles of agunot, "anchored/bound ones," Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant their wives a get (religious divorce), even though the two no longer live as a couple -- preventing the woman, according to traditional Jewish law, from remarrying.

A few resources: Dr. Rachel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate and anti-get-refusal activist, has articles on International Agunah Day in both the Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) also has a page of resources and links on the agunah issue. (In 2007 they placed this six-page advertisement in the NY Jewish Week on Ta'anit Esther / International Agunah Day.)

BJPA holdings include many publications touching on this issue. Among them are:

Cohen's Comments: The Gender Salary Gap

In this installment of our video series, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen examines and evaluates potential explanations for the salary gap between women and men in the Jewish communal field.

He gives special mention to the work being done by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community.

 

Jews and the Supreme Court

Elena Kagan's recent nomination to SCOTUS has brought attention to Jews and the Supreme Court - if confirmed, she would be not only the third woman (in history) but also the third Jew (sitting now) on the American Supreme Court, making that institution one third Jewish!

(She was also, through her own struggles, the first girl to have a bat mitzvah at New York's (Orthodox) Lincoln Square synagogue.)

What else do Jews have to do with the courts?

For one:

The American Jewish Committee has been filing 'amicus curiae' briefs in the Supreme Court since 1923. AJC in the Courts:2008 reports on their briefs filed on cases relating to separation of church and state, civil rights and civil liberties (including gun control, reproductive rights, and school integration), religious liberty, and Holocaust restitution.

I don't think anybody will be shocked at the generally liberal positions taken by the AJC, though they are not entirely uncontroversial. Yossi Prager's recent article, Day School Sustainability: Ours to Achieve, disagrees with their position on government funding for religious education, for example.

For more details, the AJC's litigation reports from the last decade or so are available on BJPA. Each report summarizes the case and then the position taken in the AJC's brief.