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
BY: Rodger Kamenetz
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."
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."
While Jane reaches out in her work to prisoners of all faiths and races, she's taken a special interest in the fate of Jewish prisoners. Her eyes opened after writing an article on Jews in jail.
"I found Jews were buried alive," she told an interviewer for the Atlanta Jewish Times. "There was one woman who had been there for 10 years and had never had a visit from a rabbi. I felt like I had stumbled upon this cave and found Jews there. So it was like my Jewish soul came forward. I couldn't just leave them."
Jews in prison in the United States are a small group in absolute or relative numbers. In 1998, there were approximately 1,700 Jewish prisoners out of 1.5 million, according to Congressional testimony--a little more than one in 1,000. But the isolation of Jewish prisoners, the anti-Semitism and insensitivity of prison officials, and the general lack of connection between Jewish prisoners and the Jewish community make their situation extremely difficult.
Currently, Jane says, "There are 10 Jewish prisoners on death row scattered throughout the country like prizes in a Cracker Jack box. Most have been abandoned by the Jewish communities, including rabbis, although there are some rabbis who do visit occasionally."
She says that all those active in working with Jewish prisoners, including such organizations as Aleph Institute and Jewish Prisoners International, echo the same complaint.
Jane has developed a program called Minyan-by-Mail, which began as a result of her feeling the despair of these Jewish prisoners. ("Minyan" is the term for a Jewish prayer quorum.) She considers it "a program to foster community. Being kind to people does not condone any act they may have committed, and it brings dignity to ourselves and others."
In Jane's view, "The Jews in prison and death row--like many Jews in the 'free world'--are often not very observant. However, upon landing in such a strange land, they seek solace and connection through their religion. Ironically, many Jews in prison fight so hard to be Jewish when it would be much easier to not be."