"Every single letter of the alphabet is needed to have a kosher Torah. If any letter is missing then the Torah is not kosher. This means that any member of our community that is missing (incarcerated) must be returned in order for the community to be whole," My friend and Rabbinical student, Greg Metzger said to me.
He said these words and more while trying to recruit me for his Judaism and recovery program at California Institution for Women prison in Chino, Calif. He made such a passionate plea for my help I couldn't say no. I also have a soft spot for the neglected and society's unwanted because I was one myself.
I remember my first visit to CIW. I stood nervously in front of the metal detector at check in waiting for the gruff prison guard to clear me in the system. I was dressed in my best Orthodox Jewish wear (long black skirt, long sleeve white top and black beret to cover my hair).
After a half an hour I was finally cleared and stepped through the metal detector with just my sunglasses and Drivers License in hand (I had to lock my purse and other belongings up). Greg, myself and two other volunteers passed through the antiseptic lobby to the heavy double doors that opened to the prison yard.
The doors shut behind me with a loud and quick bang. The combination of the dead-of-summer-107-degree heat and the sad fenced-in yard filled with dead, brown grass made a wave of panic come over me. It didn't help that Greg told me the reason why visitors were not allowed to wear blue to the prison.
"We don't wear blue because the inmates wear blue and when the buzzer goes off for whatever reason all the inmates have to drop to the ground and those who are left standing who are wearing blue are shot," Greg said very matter of fact.
The panic got worse as we walked to the trailer where all the Jewish women in the prison and the Rabbi who works at the prison hold their Shabbat services and Torah study. The panic was about being locked into a place and not being able to get out. I calmed myself down by saying to myself that I am here for a purpose, to help Jewish alcoholics and drug addicts and that I can, in fact, leave.
The prison smelled like urine, feces and bad cafeteria food. For the most part the yard was empty and I asked why.
Apparently, women were going out into the yard and committing suicide. There seemed to be no hope at this place; just lost souls doing their time while being treated inhumanely.
We finally reached the little brown trailer and walked in. Thankfully, it was air-conditioned. The Rabbi who worked at the prison was leading the women in Torah study discussion. The portion of the Torah that they were studying was about being cursed for the crimes you commit. Ironic, yes, but it was right before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so all Jews were getting ready to ask for forgiveness from their sins.
There was a group of about 20 women who were either Jewish or converted to Judaism. The women were of various nationalities and their crimes ranged from armed robbery to murder. They all wore yarmulkes and prayer shawls. They call themselves the B'not Or -- women of light.
A heated discussion came about when one of the inmates was adamant that the Jewish people are the chosen people while another woman thought that was really arrogant of her.
What I felt from these women was hope and faith. Their connection to God and to Judaism meant the world to them and I can understand why. In a place with so much despair, this little trailer was a respite.
After Torah study we went into the larger room to facilitate the Jewish recovery meeting. All of the Jewish women and a few more joined us as Greg and I took them through a workbook. After going through the workbook we talked with the women individually about their resentments, fears and struggles.
I'm getting to know these women and they all have heart-breaking stories of drugs, alcoholism, poverty and domestic abuse. I think many Jews believe we're immune to these issues but that couldn't be further from the truth.
The Judaism recovery program used to be in nine other prisons but lost the funding. It is hard to raise money to help Jewish inmates transform their lives when there are puppies and sick children that are more appealing.
I've done a lot of charity but this experience by far has been the most rewarding. To see lives transform and the human spirit lifted is a gift. It is my mission to help Greg bring back all the missing letters of the alphabet so that our community can be whole.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.