October 11, 2019
Time to Forgive: Second Chances in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)
Before the start of this new year,
I led a Friday night service for twelve men in a classroom—
the kind with elementary-school desk-chairs
that they had to squeeze into.
I brought a guitar and sang some of their favorite melodies
and taught them a few new ones.
I have never heard such spirited singing.
We made kiddush and motzi over grape juice and matzah.
And asked them what they hoped for in the new year.
Goldberg was looking forward to holding his new grandson
for the first time.
Yaakov wanted to get rid of any negative energy he carried.
And as we left, Zev, a gentle soul,
said that this was the best service he’d attended in 30 years.
I walked out into a perfect September evening;
the sun was setting and the sky was pink and the air warm,
and for a moment
I forgot I was in a maximum security prison in New Jersey,
until I saw the barbed wire along the high fence and the watchtower looming above me.
I tried to reconcile the spiritual freedom of these men
with their physical incarceration,
some would be there for decades more, some for life.
On Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement,
we are offered the possibility for teshuva, for return.
Teshuva requires that we extend a second chance to others
And if we look at the story of Jonah,
our traditional Yom Kippur afternoon reading,
we see how very hard it can be to forgive.
God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh,
a city full of thieves, rapists and murderersi,
to proclaim judgement on the people
and to save the city from its wickedness.
God wants to give them a chance to repent.
But Jonah refuses to go.
Not because he thinks they won’t repent.
But because he is certain they will.
Jonah doesn’t think these people deserve a second chance from God,
let alone an ounce of his compassion.
So, Jonah flees, and is only compelled to go to Nineveh
after enduring several days of solitary confinement
in the belly of a whale.
When Jonah finally proclaims God’s decree to the Ninevites,
they do exactly as he expected—they turn back from their evil ways,
and they REPENT.
And God?—God forgives them all.
But Jonah not so much.
Jonah is distraught.
He says he would rather die than see God give these criminals a pardon.
I grew up in an era where everyone wanted to be “tough on crime.”
This era birthed the unforgiving “three strikes” law
and mandatory minimum sentences.ii
We put people in prison for crimes that no other nation imprisons,
like non-violent drug offenses, and we keep them there for much longer.
It was an era in which one story, of Willie Horton—
who committed a violent crime while on furlough—
could stoke enough fear to sink a presidential campaign,
and caution anyone from thinking criminals can change.
It was an era in which we disproportionately imprisoned people of color.
We perpetuated a poverty trap
in which black men who do not finish high school
were more likely to be behind bars than employed.iii
The year I was born, the prison population in America was 200,000.
Today it is 2.2 million.
Just in my lifetime, the prison population ballooned by ten times.iv
Many years ago, when my children were young,
my husband was a federal prosecutor,
and it was easy for me to explain to them what he did:
“Daddy’s job is to put the bad guys in jail.”
When our friend Sean, one of the most talented lawyers I know,
became a public defender, I was perplexed.
I asked him,
“Aren’t basically all the people you defend criminals?
What do you tell your kids you do every day?”
I remember he said: “Yes, most of my clients have committed crimes.
But they all deserve to be treated fairly
and most don’t deserve the excessive punishment in store for them.”
I realize now that his job was not to represent criminals.
It was to represent human beings.
But I’m ashamed to say that 15 years ago,
I was convinced he was wasting his time.
I felt a lot like Jonah:
I believed people got what they deserved,
and these criminals only deserved my judgement.
This sermon is my attempt at teshuva.
Many of you may be familiar with the Doe Fund.
Their mission is to provide formerly incarcerated men a second chance
through a demanding program of work, training and rehabilitation.
The Doe Fund prides itself on offering a hand UP
instead of a HANDOUT.
You’ve probably seen Doe Fund men cleaning up our neighborhood wearing their distinctive blue,
“Ready, Willing and Able” uniforms.
Now I want you to meet one of them: Terrance Coffie.
Listen to his story:
“My Dad was a pimp and my Mom was a prostitute.
I was born a seed of failure
and never given the chance to grow up anything but that.
My life was saturated with poverty.
I was put in dysfunctional schools
and bounced around in foster homes.
I believed in God as a child,
but I knew that there were people who God loved
and people like me, who He didn’t.
As a young black man without a high school degree,
I couldn’t get access to a job.
But I could get access to drugs.
By 20 I was in prison.
While I was in prison I got my GED.
Finally! When someone asked me if I had a high school diploma,
I could say YES.
But they didn’t ask me that when I got out.
They asked if I was formerly incarcerated.
This is what we do to people like me:
You take a child of poverty, you put me in a cage.
You release me right back into poverty.
Only now, on top of that, I am also formerly incarcerated.
There is no way out.
I was in and out of prison 6 times.
19 years of my life.
When I was 39, I was finally given a break.
The Doe Fund changed the course of my life.
It wasn’t just a second chance. It was my first opportunity.”
Terrance graduated from the Doe Fund, and at 40 years old,
he enrolled in Brooklyn Community College
and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, all while working a full-time job.
He got a full scholarship to NYU,
where he earned a Bachelors and Masters degree.
Now he teaches Forensic Justice at NYU,
and he is the founder of a non-profit called Educate Don’t Incarcerate.
Terrance is working to give other children
that first opportunity he never had.
I am honored that Terrance is here with us this morning,
along with Topeka Sam, and Kempis Songster,
and all three of them will be part of our Yom Kippur panel
of returning citizen activists with Rabbi Hilly Haber—
right after the morning service.
I encourage you all to listen to this panel;
we can learn a lot about teshuva from them.
As we sit here atoning and fasting today, the prophet Isaiah,
in our Yom Kippur Haftarah portion,
makes it clear that God doesn’t want the false piety of a fast
that does not lead to moral action.
God wants us “to loose the fetters of wickedness…
and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”
The lesson is: if your empty stomach today
does not make you more attuned to people who live without food on their table every day,
who live in unstable homes, who suffer from abuse,
who never had an adult role model in their life—
then this is not the fast God seeks.
We must read this text on our holiest day of the year
not as prophetic poetry
but as a mandate.
This fast must compel us to act
on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society.
And today, some of society’s most vulnerable are sitting in prison,
or are the formerly incarcerated, struggling to return to life.
Whether the root problem is poverty, lack of educational opportunity,
mental illness, or addiction,
we have increasingly turned to incarceration,
not as a last resort,
but as our first response.
And if you think it’s expensive to run drug rehabilitation programs,
or invest in our failing schools
or make sure no child is hungry,
know that any of those would be a better investment
than the $300,000 that New York City currently spends each year
to keep a human being in a cage.
Yes. Unbelievably, New York City spends $300,000 a year
on every person behind bars.v
But there is some progress being made in our city:
our jail population has decreased by over fifty percent
since its peak in 1991.
Our city’s incarceration rate is now half the national rate.
And we New Yorkers remain safer than we have been for a generation.
We’ve learned that locking more people up
doesn’t necessarily correlate with reduced crime:
New York City is now simultaneously one of the least incarcerated
and one of the safest big cities in the country.vi
And there is finally some political momentum,
on both sides of the aisle, to decarcerate and reform.
Governor Cuomo signed historic criminal justice reform in New York,
which, among other things, took aim at the practice of cash bail,
that all too often locked people up simply for being poor.vii
Central was proud to be a small part of that effort.
And with bipartisan support, President Trump signed the First Step Act
which has already given early release to 2,200 prisoners
under reduced mandatory minimum sentences.viii
I knew the political winds were shifting when I saw primary debates
in which Kamala Harris was on the defensive
for being ‘too tough on crime’
and Joe Biden boasted about being a Public Defender.
We are definitely in a new era.
For the first time in fifty years, attitudes are shifting.
And we have a moral opportunity:
to decarcerate, not incarcerate.
To humanize, not criminalize.
We may not agree on every detail of how to reform the system,
but meaningful change can begin with each one of us.
And on this holy day of repentance and forgiveness—
we must forgive our brothers and sisters who have paid their time
and give them a chance to return—fully, back to society.
But as we know from the story of Jonah—while God is quick to forgive—
people are not.
Do you have any idea how many Americans
are living with a prior arrest or conviction record?
70 million of our neighbors!
A shocking 1 in 5 Americans have a criminal recordix
and are caught in a labyrinth of legal prohibitions,
barred from certain professions
and in many states have permanently lost their right to vote.
Many are ineligible for government assistance for housing,
food and education—
all the things people need for stability and security.
And society openly stigmatizes and discriminates against them as well.
We have not forgiven them.
Is it a surprise that nearly 80% of the formerly incarcerated
go back to jail within 5 years of release?x
Without giving returning citizens the support they need
every sentence becomes a life sentence.
Evie Litwok knows this truth firsthand.
She is the child of two Holocaust survivors.
At 60, she was convicted for tax evasion,
and spent two years in two federal prisons,
including stints in solitary confinement.
She described the degrading procedures of daily life in prison,
the threats of sexual violence, the harsh work conditions.
Even then, she said: “Being released from prison
was harder than being in prison…
I was handed a Greyhound bus ticket and 30 dollars.
There was no place for me to go,
no services to help me get housing, a job.
No help for my deteriorated mental health.”
When Evie was released, she applied for 200 positions,
and while she had a thirty-year work history,
she could not get even an entry level job.
She was homeless and destitute for 16 months.
Evie was able to turn her life around
only because an old friend stepped forward
and helped her find an apartment and sent her money each month.
Through it all she said:
“it was the Jewish values my parents would repeat and model
throughout my childhood that stayed with me, that is,
that Jews have a moral obligation
to care about the dignity of every person.
It was my parents’ reminder that led me to watch,
learn and record in my mind everything that happened in prison.”
Evie’s Jewish response was starting an organization called
Witness to Mass Incarceration,
which gives voice to formerly incarcerated women
and LGBTQ individuals and helps them reenter society.
Evie encouraged me to point out
that she looks like your typical Jewish grandmother.
Because she wants you to know that this happens in the Jewish community.
That she is not so different from any of us—she is part of our family.
A Deuteronomy text reinforces this very lesson:
“If the wicked one is to be flogged… He may be given up to forty lashes,
but not more….to excess, lest your brother be degraded
before your eyes.”xi
This text perfectly sums up the Jewish response to criminal justice:
First, it teaches that everyone should be held accountable
for their crime.
This is not a free pass.
However, we cannot make the punishment excessive.
And it should never degrade the fundamental dignity of a human being.
And finally, and most importantly—
the rabbis emphasize that the moment that the punishment is complete,
the “wicked one” is transformed.
He becomes “your brother.” She becomes “your sister.”
In our tradition, you are not defined forever
by the worst thing you’ve ever done.
You don’t remain the wicked one—
you are brought back into the family.
Every one of us can help break this yoke
on 70 million brothers and sisters who seek return:
Support organizations that give returning citizens
opportunities for a second chance.
Get involved in our efforts here at Central
and in our community to support criminal justice reform—
it’s one of the few areas that both political parties
can agree on these days.
Congress called its bill the First Step Act,
because there will be many more steps needed
to break down a system that took 50 years to build up.
And beyond politics, you can all help at a much more personal level.
Many of you are in a position where you are able to hire people.
We at Central Synagogue have hired formerly incarcerated employees,
and so can you.
We can’t let people like Evie, people like Terrance,
become part of a permanently untouchable class of people—
Because ultimately, we Jews are not in the retribution business.
We are in the Redemption Business.
because the Talmud reminds us that WE ALL—every one of us—
stand on the borderline between merit and sinxii,
teshuva is a permanent posture for us, for how we live our lives.
And know this: my teshuva is bound up in your teshuva.
My freedom is bound up in your freedom.
When we deny people the ability to heal, to grow, to return,
we deny all of us the path to our shared redemption.
This is why, on Yom Kippur, we will recite our sins in the plural:
Al Chey Shechatanu L’fanecha—WE have sinned before you.
With collective responsibility, comes collective atonement.
And what do we pray before pounding our chests with our “alphabet of woe”?
Adonai Adonai, El Rachum V’Chanun. xiii
Before we confess our sins, we remind ourselves that
Adonai is a God of mercy and grace.
Mercy and Grace.
Sometimes Jews feel like these words are outside of our tradition,
but they are absolutely central to this holiday.
God’s grace and mercy is for everyone who is willing to repent.
To do teshuva.
To RETURN to the goodness that is within each of us.
And right now, we are in a world desperately in need of more mercy and grace:xiv
Mercy being the promise that with the scales of justice,
divine compassion ultimately wins.
And Grace being the promise that God’s love doesn’t have to be earned
because it can never be lost.
It just is.
And when we begin to accept God’s grace and mercy for ourselves,
then we can begin to accept that it is meant for everyone.
No one is born a criminal.
Every one of God’s children is born good.
And that is why God is so deeply invested in the opportunity
for every one of us to return.
Not just the Ninevites.
Not just the men I worshipped with in that prison classroom.
But every single one of us, balancing our merit and sin on this day.
Yom Kippur is not only the Day of Judgement:
It is the day of Second Chances.
God is offering us a Second Chance.
Will we offer it to each other?
i Nahum, Ch 2:8-3:13
ii 1994 Federal Crime Bill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violent_Crime_Control_and_Law_Enforcement_Act and https://www.congress.gov/bill/103rd-congress/house-bill/3355
A report from the National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences: U.S. Should Significantly Reduce Rate of Incarceration;
Unprecedented Rise in Prison Population ‘Not Serving the Country Well,’ Says New Report
iv Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/data/
US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics: Historical Statistics on Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions, Yearend 1925-86: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/hspsfiy25-86.pdf
v Comptroller Stringer: Despite a Decline in Incarceration, Correction Spending, Violence, and Use of Force Continued to Rise in FY 2018: https://comptroller.nyc.gov/newsroom/comptroller-stringer-despite-a-decline-in-incarceration-correction-spending-violence-and-use-of-force-continued-to-rise-in-fy-2018/
vi Quote NYC DOC Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne in the NY Post article: NYC jails spending rises despite population decline: https://nypost.com/2019/01/22/nyc-jails-spending-rises-despite-population-decline/
vii Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s 22nd proposal of his 2018 State of the State: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-unveils-22nd-proposal-2018-state-state-restoring-fairness-new-yorks-criminal
viii Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act or First Step Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Step_Act and https://uslaw.link/citation/us-law/public/115/391
x U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics: 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014): https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf
xi Deuteronomy 25:2-3
xiiMishneh Torah Teshuva 2:4
xiii Exodus 34:6-7
xiv I am indebted to Serene Jones for her theological understanding of mercy and grace found in her book, Call it Grace which inspired mine.
On Yom Kippur, to deepen our understanding of spiritual repair and renewal, we invited our congregation to join for a conversation about teshuvah (return) in the age of mass incarceration. Rabbi Hilly Haber moderated a panel discussion between Terrance Coffie, Topeka K. Sam, and Kempis “Ghani” Songster whose lives have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system, and who have dedicated themselves to creating social and political change in America. Click below to view the full discussion.
Panel of Criminal Justice Reform Activists on Yom Kippur Afternoon, Moderated by Rabbi Hilly Haber
Ways to Get Involved
Click these links to learn more about the organizations led by these panelists or that Rabbi Buchdahl mentioned during her sermon.
If you would like to receive information on upcoming speakers, teachings and opportunities for criminal justice reform work through Central, simply fill out this form.
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