Books Social Justice

Stuck on the Shores of the Parted Sea: Mass Incarceration Through a Jewish Lens

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Hilly Haber to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

During my third year of rabbinical school, I had the privilege of co-teaching two college classes at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. The students I worked with in the class were either serving out a sentence or detained and awaiting trial or sentencing. Every Friday, I rode the city bus from Queens across the bridge onto Rikers Island, surrounded by men, women, and children visiting their parents, children, loved ones, and friends who were detained on the island.

During our time together, we learned about and discussed the historical origins of the prison system, debated various philosophies of punishment, and armed ourselves with knowledge about today’s criminal justice system. These men were members of what Professor Andrew Skotnicki calls “the Rikers Island Campus of Manhattan College.”

In the spring of second semester, I missed a class to celebrate Passover with my family. Later, as I explained the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt to the students, I was overcome with the realization that these men, some of whom were being detained for crimes for which they had not yet been found guilty, were living, and would go on living, in a perpetual Egypt—a perpetual state of non-freedom.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly one in every thirty-one Americans lives either under correctional control in prison or jail or on probation or parole for nonviolent offenses. This shocking statistic does not even take into account the thousands of men and women who live with the permanent scar of a felony incarceration on their record or the family members of those who have been incarcerated. Across the country, a felony incarceration can lead to legalized forms of discrimination, including but not limited to denying men and women employment, housing, public benefits, the right to vote, the ability to serve on a jury, and public accommodations, all of which affect not only the person being discriminated against, but his or her family members as well. As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration in the United States has led to the creation of a caste system in which men and women who live or have lived under the control of the criminal justice system are permanently subjected to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

The Exodus narrative is an inspiring story in which the Israelites move from slavery to freedom; the statistics on mass incarceration, on the other hand, tell the dispiriting story of a people who have moved from one form of enslavement to another. While incarceration rates differ from state to state, on average, one in eleven African American adults compared with one in forty-five white adults live under correctional control.

The cycle of incarceration and recidivism fueled by racism and poverty within the United States is the Egypt in our midst.

In contrast to today’s criminal justice system, biblical and rabbinic legal structures did not utilize incarceration as a means of punishment or a way of forcing someone to remain in a permanent state of nonfreedom or exile from the community. Indeed, rather than isolate and oppress members of the community who were found guilty of committing a crime, systems of punishment outlined by the Bible and refined by the Rabbis actually sought the opposite outcome. The absence of incarceration as a form of punishment in biblical and Rabbinic texts speaks volumes. Punishment in Jewish tradition, with the exception of capital cases, functioned as a way of bringing about t’shuvah and full return to the community.

The Gemara also displays a certain empathy for those who have been imprisoned and is aware of our social responsibility toward the incarcerated, teaching that “prisoners cannot free themselves from their shackles” (BT B’rachot 5b). Today’s shackles are not limited to the walls of a prison. Once released from prison, most people are still bound by both the force of law and by stigma, forces that keep the walls of the sea from parting for millions of men, women, and children.

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that t’shuvah atones for all sins. Maimonides’s conception of t’shuvah involves repentance, atonement, and return. Once a person has repented for his or her sins, forgiveness and reintegration into society must follow. Today’s criminal justice system, one that emphasizes punishment and surveillance over rehabilitation and reintegration, offers few opportunities for true t’shuvah—true return for those permanently sentenced to states of non-freedom.

If our Reform Jewish community takes seriously our commitment to both social justice and Jewish tradition, we must work to open new pathways for people who remain shackled in narrow places.

Hilly Haber is a fifth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in New York City. Originally from New York, Hilly holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College in religion and German Studies, and a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Hilly serves as the student Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and as a teaching assistant on a Rikers Island with Manhattan College. Hilly is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a Tisch Fellow.  She is also a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order.  

Social Justice

T’shuvah in an Age of Mass-Incarceration: The Radical Possibility of True Return

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.

In an age of mass incarceration, in which a definable group of people, many of whom are the descendants of former slaves, live in a state of non-freedom, our belief that people can change, strive for blessing, and engage in t’shuvah is not just counter-cultural, but downright radical. When we deny someone, especially a young person, the opportunity to grow and perform t’shuvah, we not only deny that person a future, but deny our country limitless amounts of potential as well.

Throughout the year, but especially now, individually and collectively, we are pushed to take stock of our souls, to account for our sins. We are counseled to both ask for and give forgiveness, to turn back and right ourselves on a path of justice and embrace those who have returned to walk with us.

In his work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlines the process of t’shuvah as one of repentance, confession, and return. When an individual engages in the work of t’shuvah, Maimonides writes, he or she not only recognizes and seeks forgiveness for wrongdoing, but also examines, interrogates, and erases the very impulses from which the wrongdoing emerged. When confronted with the same situation again, therefore, the sin no longer arises, and the path of return is set.

Where could we, as a society, apply Maimonides concept of t’shuvah? What would notions of guilt and punishment look like in a criminal justice system founded on the possibility of return? The Rabbis of the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin address these questions through imagining a world in which t’shuvah rewrites and informs biblical notions of justice in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son.

Outlined in chapter 21 of Deuteronomy, the case of the ben sorer u’moreh features a swift and exacting punishment for a son who refuses to listen to his parents. In just four verses, this young man is condemned to death by stoning, and executed before the entire community.

Hundreds of years later, the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin take on the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, questioning both the logic and outcome of the biblical narrative. Noting the age of the boy, the lack of any judicial process, the role of the parents in the case, and the exact nature of the crime, the Rabbis determine that this case never actually happened – no one could be condemned to death in just four verses. Why, then, the text asks, do we read about this boy?

The objections raised by the Rabbis in the case of the ben sorer u’moreh have much to teach us on the topic of t’shuvah. One of these objections, in particular, caught my eye. One Rabbi offers the possibility that he was executed at such a tender age to prevent future wrongdoing, so that he could die an innocent man. This explanation, too, however, is rejected – we cannot judge a person based on his future deeds, there exists always the possibility for t’shuvah.

In many ways, there is no possibility for movement, personal-growth, blessing, repentance, and return in our criminal justice system – as a society, we execute the ben sorer u’moreh: we sentence the child to death before giving him a chance to repent and return. For the past few months, I have been teaching a course at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, to ten men who are incarcerated at one of the facilities on the island. Together, we have been learning about the criminal justice system, and reading the book, The New Jim Crow. These men, my partners in learning, have opened my eyes to the many ways in which true repentance and return for them is almost impossible. How can we welcome back those in need of healing and return? How can we, like the Rabbis of tractate Sanhedrin, recognize the potential of the ben sorer u’moreh.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the system of mass incarceration thriving in our country today works to create an under-caste in our society; a group of people largely composed of men of color who are subject to, “a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn, and exclusion. In this hidden world,” she writes, “discrimination is perfectly legal” (142).  Even for a first-time, non-violent offender, someone who may not even spend time in prison, the result of a conviction could mean the loss of, “federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal education assistance…if he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or posses a firearm, or obtain federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not, he becomes immediately deportable” (143).

When we, as a Jewish people, engage in t’shuvah and believe in our ability to remap the impulses imprinted at the very core of our beings, we open up the possibility for others to do the same. We are a people who take our souls into account, who grow and forgive, fall off the path and welcome those who have returned with us. But is this enough?  What if every congregation in America committed to hiring someone who had been incarcerated for a non-violent crime?

Now that we have confessed our sins and beaten our chests, I propose that we, as a movement, act. Let us bring true t’shuvah into this world.


Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis and is teaching at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.



Books gender equality LGBT Social Justice

On the Shoulders of Revolutionaries: Queering Jewish Texts and Reform Ritual

As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition.

Queer readings of Jewish texts are liberating – they explode traditional categories of classification and rigid ways of thinking.  Rather than pushing readers toward clear cut understandings of biblical figures, aggadic material, and Jewish law, queer analyses of texts open up and shed light on multiple truths and ways of being in relationship to Jewish ritual and values. I believe that one feature of any sacred text is its ability to capture and say something about the human condition. Understanding a text through a queer lens has the power to not only locate universal human truths, but also to amplify these sacred elements, allowing us to see themes and characters as constantly changing. In opening texts to new meanings, we as people then have the permission and power to understand ourselves as constantly changing, traversing borders, and breaking down barriers. Queer theory also pushes us to challenge the binary nature of labels like, “sacred and profane,” acknowledging that the line between such categories is constantly shifting and permeable. When the boundary between sacred and profane is understood in this way, the brokenness and injustices of our world can become sites of sacred work, partnership, and healing.

While there are many scholars, clergy people, and Jewish organizations engaged in the project of queering Jewish space and text, I would argue that the power and full force of this work has not yet been incorporated into many Reform congregations. How would a “queering” of Jewish space look in mainstream Reform Judaism? Perhaps it would challenge our, often, hierarchical leadership structures, open up the possibility for new rituals in our congregational life, or push us to embrace and name every aspect of the human experience, like anxiety, joy, anger, and frustration in our worship. What would it mean for our congregations if gender was experienced not as a set of defined behaviors, but a fluid and ever changing category? Would there still be a brotherhood poker night? Or a sisterhood fashion show? When we free ourselves and our children from expectations of behavior based on constructed categories like gender, we open ourselves up to new understandings of proximity, social change, and justice – we understand that boundaries and borders set between people only grow wider and stronger when we refuse to cross them.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR in New York City. As part of this celebration, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York campus, moderated a panel discussion between three women whose rabbinates represent the influence of women on the American Jewish landscape. Addressing the packed chapel, Rabbis Sally J. Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz spoke about their experiences confronting and breaking open barriers as female clergy members. The powerful testimony of each rabbi made clear both the tremendous strides the reform movement has taken toward gender equality since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, and the groundbreaking work female rabbis continue to do in teaching us new ways of being in the world.

As a female, third-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, I am a direct beneficiary of this work. Listening to these women share pieces of their respective rabbinic journeys, I could not help but feel tremendous gratitude for my ability to walk along their well-trodden paths. Growing up, watching Rabbi Leah Cohen, the rabbi of my home congregation, in action every Shabbat, it was never hard for me to imagine myself on the bimah or to see myself entering the rabbinate. When I applied to HUC-JIR, I didn’t see my application as an act of daring or courage, but rather the fulfillment of my childhood dream. But there is more to this story. Women rabbis have not just opened the door for young girls to see themselves in positions of Jewish leadership; they have also fundamentally infused the role and identity of the rabbi with endless possibility. As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition. In creating and opening up new models of religious leadership, women rabbis have sewn the seeds for other forms of non-traditional engagement with Jewish texts and ritual, the harvest of which is in full-bloom.

Like Moses, Miriam, Jacob, the levitical priest, Judah the Prince, and countless other figures and innovators of our tradition – we have the power to cross boundaries, re-imagine ourselves, and to demand relevance and blessing from our tradition – to queer notions of identity and meaning in this world.

Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.





Passover Pesach

The Ivrim: Holding Time and Tension in Perfect Balance

This week, we mark our final days in Egypt. For generations, we have languished in slavery, served our masters from the narrow confines of our chains. We have built, heaved, sweat, and cried – bled, birthed, pushed, and died all in a land that is not our land, for a king who is not our king. Stifled, oppressed – this is our people’s story of alienation, of being the stranger.

But, this week, though our bodies are still ensnared, our eyes are set on revelatory fire. There is something new in the air. Freedom is coming. This week is the last week of our captivity. In these final days leading up to Pesach, we step into the project of our redemption – a seemingly unending march to the land of our promise.

There’s a paradox here. Every year we leave Mitzrayim, we leave Egypt, and every year we find ourselves back there again. Where was your Mitzrayim, your narrow place, last year? By what or by whom are you held captive this year? Back and forth – and forever in between.

This is the story, the very essence of our people. We live in tension, in movement. From the narrow confines of slavery, toward the land of our redemption – from the darkness of exile to the blinding light of revelation. Most of the time we are betwixt and between.

We are the the Hebrews, the Ivrim.  The word Ivrim comes from the root ayin, bet, resh, which means to cross over. The very name informs us that we are in constant motion, unending transformation, and enduring transition. We are named for this tension, this unending march toward a more just, a more righteous reality.

As Ivrim, we are called to move across borders and boundaries, across time and space – called to relive a collective past and a shared memory in every act of ritual, in every reading of text, and in every moment of prayer. We are an unending past and revelatory future – a collection of movements, words, and memories transmitted from the murky depths of creation passed down to us in the accents of our great-grandparents.

When I think about crossing boundaries, about breaking free from captivity, I think about my great-grandfather, Nathan Chanin. Nathan came to America at the turn of the century after serving an eight year sentence in Siberia for his revolutionary activities. He was a leader of the Jewish Labor movement, a prominent union organizer, and well-known educator.  He worked for the  Workmen’s Circle for over 15 years, serving as both the organization’s Education Director and Secretary General.

Nathan’s passion for the Yiddish language, his unceasing pursuit of justice, and his love of Yiddishkeit have flowed down through the generations of my family, spilling over into our religious, political, and cultural identities. It is at this time of year, this time of exodus, of liberation, and of transition, that I am most reminded of Nathan’s legacy.  Every Pesach, my family narrates, sings, and celebrates the story of our redemption in Yiddish. From the perfectly pronounced story of the four sons, each voiced by my mother and her siblings, to my broken and heavily accented four-questions — we speak a more just future into being through the language of our past.

In addition to the Yiddish of our past, my cousins and I add supplementary texts, prayers, and music to our family seder. Every year, we bring new words that have moved us, songs that have inspired us, and rituals that have transformed us. We bring in Leonard Baskin’s drawings from the CCAR’s Passover Haggadah and the ritual of Miriam’s Cup and the gender-inclusive language of The Open Door. Our Seder is two moments in time at once – multiple voices held together in perfect tension.

This blend of past and future, of Nathan’s secular Yiddishkeit with the current longings and passions of his great-grandchildren have taught me that perhaps freedom and redemption come not as the result of a long march or entering a promised land, but are cultivated and honed over time in our ability to move in and out of the boundaries and to live as Ivrim, in constant transformation.

At the end of his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin imagines a moment of unending revelation and redemption that stands in perpetual tension. He writes:

“No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where blood ran down. They wandered in the valley forever, and they smote the rock forever. And the waters sprang perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever and lifted up their eyes forever. They were cast down forever, and the Lord lifted them up forever.”

Revelation, Baldwin says, happens in tension – in the unending march toward freedom.

As we embark once more from the confines of Mitzrayim, our narrow places, I would like to offer you the opportunity to fully embody the identity of the Ivrim, the boundary crosser. From Egypt to revelation, from the promised land to exile — we are blessed with the ability to find redemption and freedom in moments of unending tension.
May this blessing be available to each of us.

Hilly is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is also a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.