A second chance

Rabbi Bernard Barsky

By Rabbi Bernard Barsky, Beth Abraham Synagogue

If you don’t feel the outrage and shame of it, then at least acknowledge the irony. This nation, the land of the free, said to be founded on “Judeo-Christian values” — a four-millennia long tradition rooted in the ideas of redemption and covenant, celebrating freedom and redemption at the core of its faith rituals — has morphed in 30 years into the world’s greatest prison nation. The United States has more people locked in its prisons than any other nation in the world, now or at any time in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The reasons are widely known: not an explosion of violent crime, but rather the zero-tolerance war on drug addiction, mandatory sentencing, institutional racism, and the unhealthy entanglement of the burgeoning prison system with local economies.

For a person of faith, to be a citizen of the nation that imprisons more of its citizens than even the world’s most brutal dictatorships has to be an in-your-face confrontation with our central beliefs.

Every morning observant Jews recite Psalm 146: “God brings justice to the oppressed, and provides food for the hungry.

The Lord frees the bound, the Lord raises up those who are bowed down.” Every morning our prayers begin by blessing God for “clothing the naked, releasing the bound, raising up the downtrodden.”

But it is not part of our faith to leave these works to God and get on with our own selfish business, gratefully absolved of those responsibilities. In blessing God for these works of justice, a great moral claim is laid on us with a strong hand.

Israel was redeemed from bondage in order to become a people of redeemers. That is the covenant we signed on for: to proclaim freedom, to extend a hand to the fallen, to redeem the captive, to care for the most vulnerable, and to love the other. If not now, when?

Let’s say God does manage to release one of the bound, by turning the heart of a judge or a parole board. Is this human being not given to us as a responsibility? Otherwise there’s a very good chance that he or she will be incarcerated again within three years. That’s called recidivism, and it means that the work of release was left half done. No one was there to offer a hand to God’s liberating work. We sat that one out.

On the other hand, we might recall the Commandment we agreed to at Sinai, to raise up the neighbor who has fallen, and recognize that this is that moment, and we are the ones being called.

Each of us can do this work to break apart the prison state and return it to the values of our faith. Being a community of faith means being faithful to God by being faithful to one another. As we were redeemed, we must go and redeem.

Returning citizens have criminal records and face a host of entangling collateral sanctions that impede them from finding work and rejoining the community, such as barriers to getting a driver’s license or restrictions on certain professional certifications.

They may also be without family support, in need of addiction therapy, and lack job skills. Left to fend for themselves, going back to prison might seem the easiest path.

Even without the motivation of a religious conviction, it makes good sense to help returning citizens establish themselves as wage-earning, tax-paying members of the community.

Montgomery County spends almost $25,000 a year to incarcerate each inmate, but less than $1,000 a year per person on reentry programs and services that will help them find homes and jobs, and rebuild their lives.

Wise community leaders in Montgomery County began addressing these issues in 2005, and in 2008, the Board of County Commissioners established an ex-offender reentry task force to study and make recommendations for a plan of action.

Two years later, in November 2010, the Office of Ex-Offender Reentry was established. Offering job training and placement, family counseling, addiction rehab, help in finding housing, the reentry office has produced miracles.

In 2010 before that office existed, the Montgomery County recidivism rate was 37.7 percent. Since November 2010 until today in 2013, of 1,371 ex-offenders who have gone through reentry programming, only 9.3 percent have returned to prison. And more than 10,000 children of ex-offenders have been positively impacted by the renewal of family ties.

How could a Jewish community not be committed to giving ex-felons a second chance? Our entire faith is based on stories of second chances. Young Jacob was a liar and a cheat, but God stood with him until he had rebuilt his life. Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt; it was a false rap, as common then as now, but he was raised from prison for his great destiny to lead Egypt through famine.

Joseph’s brothers, patriarchs of our 12 tribes, were kidnappers and slave traders. Moses was a murderer who ran away to escape punishment until he had grown into the man he was meant to be. David was an adulterer and murderer, but also ancestor of the Messiah. The God of Israel is the God of second chances.

But it goes deeper than that, as the prophet Hosea painfully learned. Married to an unfaithful woman, he came to understand the suffering of God at Israel’s unfaithfulness. He learned from God’s example that the only way to bring back into the covenant of community the one who has broken trust — a wayward wife or the people Israel or the felon — is by the unbroken faithfulness of the injured party.

God’s faithfulness endures forever, and that is what draws Israel back to faith. Likewise our faithfulness to the returning citizen can restore him to the covenant of our community.

Many leaders from Dayton area faith communities participated enthusiastically in the Reentry Task Force, hoping to create numerous “healing communities” for ex-offenders in our churches, synagogues and mosques. Two area churches have combined resources to provide a weekly support and mentoring circle for ex-offenders. That’s only a beginning. But imagine if we all lived out God’s gift to us of redemption from bondage! We would all be communities of welcome. If not now, when?

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