Jews in Jail

Jews in America's prisons--and on death row--face discrimination and abandonment, but a few advocates are working to change that

I met Jane Davis at a Jewish meditation retreat a few months ago. Before the meditation retreat began, we spoke briefly in the bookstore and she told me about her work--helping Jewish prisoners.

Jane Davis lives in Atlanta. She grew up in Kingston, N.Y., in a Jewish family and received a master's degree in social work. She worked for several years with gang youth and prisoners but left that world for business and marketing. But something drew her back.

In the early 90s, she began writing articles about prisoners, and in December 1993 she was asked to be a media witness at the execution of Chris Berger. She told me, "I was so affected at witnessing a human being literally fried in front of my eyes, heart and soul, that I came out seeking spiritual support as well as deeper answers to the question burning inside me: 'How did we as a society evolve to this moment of human degradation?' I viscerally knew the oneness of our collective soul. Chris was me and I was him. His eyes stayed glued to mine from the moment he was brought into the execution chamber until the leather flap was put over his eyes."

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As a direct result of her being a witness, she founded a nonprofit peace organization "based on honesty, faith, and action." She calls it HOPE-HOWSE, an acronym for her philosophy: "Help Other People Evolve through Honest Open Willing Self Evaluation (and expression)."

From a Jewish perspective, she says, "It could be called tikkun olam in action." (Tikkun olam, literally, "repair of the world," is a Kabbalistic term that these days is generally applied to social action work.)

As a child, Jane "found God in the Shema [the liturgical statement of God's oneness] and also in the silent moment of individual prayer when we lit the Shabbos candles," she said. "As a little girl, I loved circling the candles three times, covering my eyes, and having a private moment with the God of my understanding." In more recent years, she's renewed her connection with Judaism through a correspondence with Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen of Chabad-Lubavitch, who recently passed away.

"I was Bat Mitzvahed on May 6, 2000, at the age of 46," she said. "My week's parsha [Torah portion] included 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' the very essence of my work."

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