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.  

Books Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Learning How to Make a Difference

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

What prevents us from directly and regularly engaging in social justice work? So many of us want to make a difference and help to repair what is broken in our world, and yet, it can often feel overwhelming. Instead of doing anything, we feel paralyzed; we sit at home reading articles or watching other people’s actions posted on social media. What can push us past thought toward action? In my experience and opinion, the tipping point for action is training. Social justice classes, seminars, groups—all the different intentional experiences that fall under the category of “trainings”—are essential to move us from the mere desire to act to actual action. Through these trainings, participants gain community, confidence, and concrete knowledge in order to act with purpose and presence.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice — Now available for pre-order.

I recommend to every reader that they go and seek out a training opportunity in order to gain the concrete knowledge, help see themselves as part of a community, and gain the inner confidence needed to stand up to systemic oppression.


Trainings are the perfect environment to create organic community. Instead of forcing a group of people to come together, trainings attract like-minded individuals who are both open to and interested in learning. Since trainings are often held in university, religious, or communal spaces, they will appeal to those who are already active in their community. A social justice training also often appeals to those with a curious and interested mind-set. These may be individuals who not only want to participate in civil and communal life, but also are seeking relationships with others like them. These may be those who are already active in their individual faith or area community or who are likely to go beyond their safe and comfortable circles. One of the tremendous benefits of attending training is the interwoven circles of community to which each participant becomes immediately connected.

Through the single act of attending one training, one can become linked in what I think of as a shalshelet hatikkun, a chain of repair that has the power to right the wrongs of our world through thoughtful and direct action.


Confidence is often tied to our own sense of self, and often our lack of confidence is connected to our having experienced powerlessness. Trainings create the opportunity for dedicated, passionate individuals to work through their own experiences of oppression, inequality, or trauma so that they might find their own inner strength. In order to speak truth to power, it is essential for those in positions of leadership in community organizations to have insight and reflection regarding their own feelings of power and powerlessness. Through multi-day trainings, one can first work through one’s own personal experiences and then build the self-confidence that will be critical in the work of organizing and justice.

Concrete knowledge

More than ever, information on every subject is available almost immediately in the palms of our hands. Despite the relative ease by which we can access information on every facet of social justice, the dissemination of misinformation can be just as prevalent. In the age of googling experts, there is nothing that feels as authentic as going to an IRL training session with live professionals whose goal is not to pass on information about issues or policy, but to impart knowledge about how a group of dedicated individuals can effect constructive change.

In short, here are three reasons to attend a community organizing or social justice training:

  1. To learn firsthand from experts and seasoned organizers.
  2. To take the opportunity to rehearse, build confidence, and work through any personal baggage.
  3. To meet like-minded individuals and build community.

In the years since I attended that first IAF training, I have found myself in many similar rooms focused on training as passing on the knowledge born of experience.  Every time I walk out of those rooms—often at the end of a long day or days—I always have the same feelings: humility for all that I do not know, hunger to make a difference, and a sense of hurry to get to work. After all, the world isn’t going to fix itself.

Rabbi Karen R. Perolman serves Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and is a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order. 


Books Passover Pesach Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: The Obligations of Our Exodus

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we’ve invited Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, co-editor of the book, to share an excerpt of the book on Passover. Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

A couple of months ago I was arrested in the grand rotunda of the Russell Building of the United States Senate. Nearly one hundred Jewish clergy and leaders joined in song and prayer, demanding that the United States Congress pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to the nearly eight hundred thousand Dreamers who came to the United States as children and are every bit American as my own daughters. As we sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) over and over again, hundreds of Dreamers stood cheering us on from the balcony, ringing us like a human halo. In an intentionally ironic twist on the famous cry from Moses to Pharaoh, we chanted, “Let our people stay!”

When we were handcuffed, removed by the Capitol Police, and placed under arrest, we understood that we were following directly in the footsteps of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Ironically, our being put into fetters was inspired by the Hebrew slaves, who rose up from their slavery in Egypt and cast off the chains of Pharaoh’s bondage in their journey to redemption. As our hands were locked in cuffs and we were led away, we chanted the verse taken from the Song at the Sea “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vah’yi li lishuah,” “God is my strength and might, and will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). There seemed no words more fitting than those our ancient Israelite ancestors sang as they passed through the parted seas of their redemption.

Even as we were led into police custody, our group understood that we were walking in the footsteps of countless generations of Jews before us, generations who internalized the Rabbinic mandate in the Passover Haggadah that “it is incumbent on every generation to see itself as if they themselves—every person—had personally escaped from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 116b). Our deeds of civil disobedience were an act of moral resistance to the injustices being perpetrated on the Dreamers, along with tens of millions of other immigrants and refugees. We acted on the spiritual authority inherited from recent leaders like Rabbis Richard Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because they internalized the most often repeated commandment in all of Torah: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Jews have marched throughout history because the core narrative of our people, the defining master story of our tradition, is the archetypal tale of redemption. Our Exodus from Egypt is the story of the transformation of the world-as-it-is, in which “strangers” are continually crushed by oppression, into the world-as-it-should-be, one where all people know justice. The power of the Jewish master narrative lies in its inherent call to every generation to live empathy; because our ancestors were strangers, we—in this era, and in every era—are to love the stranger.

Jews not only retell the master story of redemption throughout our ritual and cultural life; we have relived it throughout history. Our history has served to reinforce the most central exhortation of our Exodus narrative: we are obligated to love the stranger as ourself.

Among the many gleanings of the Exodus narrative that ground Jewish life and values, three stand out as the sources of the spiritual authority demanding that Jews resist injustice and champion morality in every age (and regardless of the challenges we face). First, we learn not only that resistance is required by our faith and experience, but also that it is always possible. Second, we are reminded that our empathy extends beyond the “stranger” to all those who are vulnerable in our midst. Finally, we instill in our souls that the Exodus is not simply about freedom from bondage; our master story culminates with the agency to enter into a covenantal community in which all people are bound to one another.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he is an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.  Rabbi Pesner is the co-editor of CCAR Press’s  upcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, as well as a contributor to Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.