By Jessica Fishel
Jessica works at Beit T'Shuvah for the Partners in Prevention program, an informative and honest initiative designed to expose high schoolers to recovering addicts who have first-hand experience with drug, alcohol, and gambling abuse and eating disorders.
In August I decided to step out of my comfort zone and attend Shabbos services at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California. I knew that I would get a great deal out of the experience, even though I was unsure of what to expect, as I have never been to a prison. I was also unsure of how the women would accept me. I knew there would be many experiences I would be unable to relate to, but I am an open minded person and I wanted to help brighten the women’s days in any way possible. Once I entered the chapel I realized that, though I have never been to prison or been in the same situations as these women, we are all humans and in some sense have commonalities. I sat quietly, observed the dynamics of the women, and set aside all my judgments—I wanted to get as much out of this experience as possible. I immediately noticed that simple things, such as carrying the Torah, are enormous for the women, and with open minds and arms they offered me the honor to carry the Torah as well. I was extremely flattered. I have carried the Torah many times in synagogue, but this time it was different. It was an incredible experience; I was nearly brought to tears. As the women kissed the Torah, it dawned on me that spirituality is one of the few things that has not been taken away from them in prison.
Spirituality is both something that every single person has the ability to find within themselves and something that cannot be taken away from anyone. Each woman who attended the Saturday morning services at CIW definitely valued spirituality. Not all of the women were Jewish, and though many had converted while behind bars, they all valued Judaism and their connection with a higher power regardless of the presence or absence of a definite image of G-d. This was evident while we prayed, read Torah, and sat in a Jewish Twelve Step Group following the services. The topic of the group was “T’Shuvah” or repentance, and how it relates to the High Holy Days. To convey our message, we supplied the women with High Holy Day Repair Kits and T’Shuvah Cards. We had a conversation about the meaning and importance of T’Shuvah. I shared with the women that we are supposed to do T’Shuvah the day before we die (ultimately meaning every day because we do not know which day will be our last). The majority of the women related to this concept, and they were eager to learn more. In addition to learning about T’Shuvah, we had the women each share who they would like to give T’Shuvah to and why. The answers varied; some said respective family members, and others went as far as to say the people they harmed or stole from before they landed in prison. Each answer was unique and their remorse was genuine as they shared their answers. Aside from being able to share their answers and begin the repentance process, the women were extremely grateful for the High Holy Day Repair Kits and T’Shuvah Cards. I was unaware of how little material possessions these women have, and was moved by how grateful and excited they were to receive this gift.
Before this experience, I rarely took time to acknowledge how privileged I am. Now, I think about it daily. The greatest lesson I learned while I sat in CIW’s chapel is that I must always remember to live in gratitude and appreciate my freedom. All these women are willing to do T’Shuvah; however, for many of them they will never walk outside of the prison’s gates as free women, nor will many of the people they try to make an amends to accept their apologies. Regardless, they still understood the importance of making amends and will take advantage of the T’Shuvah cards. The women’s enthusiasm and passion for T’Shuvah reminded me that I must always remember the importance of atonement. My day at CIW was extremely powerful and I plan on going back each month for Shabbos services, as well as for their High Holy Day services in October. I am EXTREMELY grateful to have had this eye opening experience and I am so excited to go back this month!