We all like to tell stories of our life experiences. As a rabbi I often have this opportunity and when I do, I often reflect on two periods in my life, my time spent working as an outreach student in the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s and the five years I spent visiting the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, CO as a volunteer prison chaplain rabbi.
What they both have in common are their unusual circumstances and the most interesting people I got to meet.
What struck me as a prison chaplain, however, was how so many of the prisoners really believed they were innocent and wrongly convicted.
I’m not naive to believe all the tales, or claims of innocence told by the inmates, however it always bothered me that people could be wrongly locked up for a crime they never committed. Indeed, we know that many people are innocent and while some are lucky to have their case appealed and overturned, many have no choice but to live out their sentence in jail.
In addition, I couldn’t ignore the debilitating and unproductive environment many prisoners found themselves. Indeed, the US has a very rate of recidivism due to just this reason.
In this deeply divided congress one piece of political harmony that congress recently enacted was the First Step Act. This legislation takes modest steps to reform the criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level.
This brings me to this weeks torah portion that will be read in synagogues this Shabbat, where following the revelation at Sinai, G‑d legislates a series of laws for the people of Israel. While penalties are common in biblical law, the prison penalty in entirely left out as an option when dealing with law breakers.
Imagine living in a society with no prisons! To be sure, rabbinic law does allow for incarceration under unique circumstances. However, this is clearly the exception, not the rule.
To address this issue of prison reform, this coming Tuesday I am beginning our winter adult education 6 session course entitled “Crime and Consequence” that offers Judaism’s unique view on this important topic.
This carefully written course written by the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) and presented in over 300 locations across the US has caught the attention of lawyers and judges including of local retired district court judge Harlan Bockman who will be attending the course. When we asked Judge Bockman why he chose to participate he responded.
“I am an attorney who has spent most of my professional career in the criminal justice system. I am the only Colorado Judge to have presided over a death penalty case where the defendant has been sentenced and executed since the Furman decision by the US Supreme Court. I believe it would be beneficial to me and the other participants to hear a Jewish perspective to the justice system.”
We hope you agree and join us in this unique study opportunity”.
As with all our programs our classes are open to community members of all backgrounds and religious affiliations. It is only with our collective voice that we will further this important issue of prison reform. Perhaps the first thing we can all do is educate ourselves on this very important topic that will also provide answers and ideas of how to improve our justice system making it fairer for all.
I look forward to you joining us at this six session course that begins this Tuesday, February 5th, and offered at two convenient times, 10:30 am and again at 7:00 pm. Participants in the course will challenge their thinking, ponder the implications of ancient Talmudic wisdom for complex modern cases, and get to the heart of the most pressing injustices facing our criminal justice system today. Lessons take place at Chabad of NW Metro Denver – 4505 W 112 Ave. Westminster.
Feel free to come to first lesson at no cost and only pay the $95 registration fee if you plan on continuing the course. Crime and Consequence is accredited in Colorado for attorneys and other law professionals to earn continuing education credits.
For more information please call me at 720-984-5805 or visit www.COJewish.com/jli