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...

What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? Jewish and Non-Sectarian Social Services

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"In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, now New York, received a promise from the Jews who came to settle there that they (the Jews) would care for their own poor. Ever since then, the Jews of this country have prided themselves that this sacred promise which the first Jewish settlers in America made has never been broken."

With this quote I.M. Rubinow opens his discussion of the relationship between Jewish social services and the broader social and economic trends, questioning whether the story reflects "good history", and, more importantly, challenging the notion that it reflects "good sociology, good social ethics or good social work."

From the J-Vault: What Do We Owe to Peter Stuyvesant? (1930)

Speaking at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, Rubinow asks: "Have we made a promise? Just what kind of a promise did we make? Have we fulfilled the pledge? And is the promise still binding?" The original promise not to be "a burden" was originally a concession to "Stuyvesant's bigotry", according to sources Rubinow quotes.

If this be a promise, evidently it was obtained under duress, under threat of expulsion... It would be funny if it were not so sad. For as a matter of fact, this whole misconception, supported by a curious mixture of holy tradition, race pride, and a typical Jewish sense of group guilt, has definitely colored both the theory and practice of our work, and much of the social philosophy of the American Jewish community. No more tragic illustration may be found of the truth of the statement that necessity may be made into a virtue...

In any event, Rubinow explains, this "promise" has not really been kept:

non-Jewish contributions have been made to Jewish drives and campaigns. They have been diplomatically solicited in secret. Just why do we find a situation of this nature so very damaging to our pride? Is it because we are still a "chosen people" ? Is it because we still live in a ghetto and must not disclose our sores to the enemy? Is it because we are so proud, or because we are afraid to admit the ugly truth?

Rubinow argues that the truth is that the Jewish community cannot continue to conceive of its socioeconomic needs as existing in a vacuum:

Jewish poverty is not a result of intra-group conditions. It is a part and parcel of the whole economic and social problem of wealth production and wealth accumulation of the country as a whole. The expectation that the problem of Jewish poverty can be met individually, may be hoped to be eliminated irrespective of those general economic forces, is an expression of excessive group pride uncontrolled by scientific research and thinking. The sermon of independent group responsibility becomes a definite anti-social force if it destroys Jewish force—if it destroys Jewish interest, and Jewish participation in national progressive social movements.

Jewish communal and social service should not therefore be subsumed into larger social movements, however:

Jewish social service... has largely grown for at least three reasons: (1) To perform functions which, otherwise, would have been left undone. (2) To give expression to the need and desire of communal co-operation. (3) To enable the Jewish minority to make its contribution to development of cultural, ethical and even social values and concepts in the community in which we live.

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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.

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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.)

Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

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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Galliano Receives Slap on Wrist for Anti-Semitic Ramblings

Bigot Olympian

In honor of New York Fashion Week, it only makes sense to doff our caps to a former great, made social pariah, fashion designer. A man who could design a fabulous handbag but who thought being friends with Gisele made him G-d's gift to the world.

John Galliano, former head designer of Christian Dior, was recently sentenced by a Paris court to a suspended fine and zero jail time after his now-famous expletive-laced rant was videotaped and went viral. In it, Galliano derided Jews, praised Hitler, and in general won himself a first place ribbon in the Bigot Olympics. When Mel Gibson did the same in his puzzling diatribe, his only punishment was to have his less than flattering mugshot blasted on every TV and computer screen worldwide. Galliano, on the other hand, faced court time.

As much as I would have loved to see Galliano be served a harsh punishment from a judge for acting like an imbecile, it is pretty surprising to my American mind that he went to court for expressing his idiotic thoughts. Our first amendment rights are (usually) a wonderful thing. If you want to celebrate Festivus, fine with us. Petition the government for every American to be given a free puppy? Why not. Go off on a racist diatribe? Eh, not as cute as a puppy. But we'll let you get away with it.

Europe, it seems, has other ideas. I don't find their hate speech laws too restrictive, per se. But from a practical standpoint it does seem like a colossal waste of time and money to place every racist moron in court for running their mouths. (See this Institute for Jewish Policy Research report arguing that these laws are also ineffective.) Then again, if Galliano had made the same comments at a cafe in America, he would have walked away from there scot-free.

What do you think?

Barriers to Jewish Participation: Poverty

Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute addresses the problem of financial need among some unaffiliated American Jews in an article for e-Jewish philanthropy:

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession.

The problem, writes Golin, is not that Jewish organizations are unwilling to make accomodation. "[T]here is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations," he explains. "However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance."

 Rabbi Mordechai Liebling made a similar point in 2005 in an article called "Money in Synagogues":

Many congregations state that dues payments should not be a barrier to membership, and reduced rates are available. But studies show that the process of applying for a dues reduction is humiliating. In some congregations the process itself is unfriendly — even to the point of asking for income tax forms.

(A digression: it's comical to me that we need studies in order to tell us that asking for a dues reduction is humiliating.) Rabbi Liebling also points out, however, that the outright payment of dues is not the only way in which socioeconomic status can become a barrier:

How obligated is the institution to help members feel comfortable? Little can be done about the cars members drive, the schools children attend, or the vacations families enjoy. But a great deal can be done about the assumptions that the synagogue makes. The synagogue needs to be very conscious of the underlying economic assumptions made vis-à-vis programs and public statements. Presuming that everyone is at least “middle class” and won’t have trouble spending the extra $10 or $20 for a special program or school event is incorrect.

Celebrations are perhaps the most visible manifestation of wealth differences. Synagogues can set standards or guidelines about the lavishness of a kiddush or even a bar or a bat mitzvah party... Hundreds of years ago medieval Jewry created sumptuary laws to regulate conspicuous consumption; perhaps we need to reconsider them.

To learn more about poverty in the American Jewish community, start with "Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Community", a report based on the the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1. In 2008, the AJC published "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers". The BJPA also has many more holdings under the topic of Socioeconomic Status.

Jewish Links for MLK Day

From Allison Keyes at NPR, a story about bringing together African American and Jewish teens for a year-long leadership development program in which the two groups learn about each other's history and culture.

From Sue Fishkoff at the JTA: "A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King"

From R' Leor  Sinai at eJewish Philanthropy: "MLK and Herzl: Continuous Revelation"

From Hillel's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, a fantastic Talmud-style text study tool for learning Biblical and rabbinic parallels to, and references in, Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Doing Good Well

Repair the World's new report on their short term Jewish service learning programs takes on the efficacy question from the other side: Instead of asking if the programs are doing Jewish well, it asks whether they're doing good well.

In that sense, it's an interesting counter-point to studies like the Cohen Center's 3 part set on the Break New Ground Jewish Service Learning Initiative. The Second Year: Evaluation of the Break New Ground Jewish Service Learning Initiative  In their second year report, for example, "researchers examined characteristics of participants, their reactions to fundamental components of the BNG program, and the impacts of BNG on participants’ development of a Jewish perspective on service, commitment to volunteerism and social action, and connections to Jewish life." Contrast that to Repair the World's study, which "was designed to capture how a host community’s experience with short-term IJSL programs affected the community from the perspective of the leaders of the community based organizations/non-governmental organizations (CBO/NGO) in those communities."

Short term service/volunteering programs have been subject to skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. For example, earlier this year, the Human Sciences Research Council issued a scathing report  about the "thriving industry of AIDS orphan tourism": even when the orphanages in question and their needs are legitimate, hosting volunteers increases overhead significant overhead costs to the orphanage, crowd out local workers, and subject the children to a continual formation and dissolution of caregiver relationships and the attendant psychological costs.

Nevertheless, Repair the World's study found that it is very possible to run a short term service program that brings both short and long term benefits not just to participants but to the host community itself. Some benefits they identified included:

  • Projects can jump start residents into participating in the service.
  • Projects are opportunities for host communities to develop local leaders.
  • Host communities receive resources that they would not otherwise have.
  • Host communities enjoy and feel they benefit from cultural exchange with volunteers.
  • Host community members build individual relationships and make meaningful connections with the volunteers.
  • Participation in short-term IJSL projects can also contribute to a shift in community self-identity — an enhanced belief among community members that they have the inherent capacity to be strong and vibrant moving forward.

Interestingly, they also found that the fact that the service programs were Jewish made a much bigger difference for Jewish host communities than non-Jewish ones.

Through qualitative interviews, they identified challenges of running a good short term program and tactics for running it well. Certain organizational elements must be in place in both the host community and the organization running the short term program, and they must share a common understanding of the possibilities and limits of a short term program.

Repair the World's report and the Cohen Center's reports on the Break New Ground program often complement one another and reinforce each-others' findings. For example, the Cohen Center found that

The most frequent answer to an open-ended survey question about the greatest disappointment with their BNG experience was the service work itself, cited by 24% of respondents. As one participant explained, “the community service work we did wasn’t real work and wasn’t really beneficial to the community.”

...and Repair the World makes the following recommendation:

 The short time frame of these IJSL [intensive Jewish service learning] programs means that only some projects are appropriate. Within these time limits, host community representatives say it is important for both the volunteers and the community to be able to see the result of their work. IJSL organizations and host communities are mindful of this when planning a project.

With the popularity of service learning programs apparently growing, it is frankly a relief to hear that the Jewish community is not (necessarily) working to build Jewish identity in a way that harms other communities and that our programs can and do bring both short term and lasting benefits to others. At the conclusion of the report, Repair the World offers a series of best practices and recommendations for short term programs (and Repair the World itself). Most of these are not specifically Jewish and should be of great use to any organization planning service projects - as research on the ground is regrettably slight across the board. Kudos.