In prison, but not alone anymore
It’s 1999, two days before Rosh Hashanah, and I can’t think of anything positive to look forward to in the coming year. Rabbi Shalom Leverton is coming to see me with some supplies to celebrate the holiday. I know that he’s going to try to lift my spirits. He’s going to tell me what a beautiful soul I have or something like that.
Although I am eager to get my hands on some of the food he will be bringing, I am not too eager to be around this upbeat man. His unbending optimism is contagious, and today I don’t feel like being happy.
At this point, I am 23 years old and I have been in prison for two years with eight years to go, serving a term for armed robbery. The rabbi is a member of the Aleph Institute, a program designed to reach Jews in prison and the military and help advocate for their religious rights. I am waiting for the officer to unlock my cell so I can go to the chapel and meet him.
Finally, 30 minutes past the appointed time, the officer comes and lets me out. He tells me that my “priest” is at the front gate, and they are waiting to hear from the administrator for approval on the items he brought. I am directed to go to the chapel and wait.
Walking the long corridors of the prison, I start to get angry, assuming they will not let him in. Or even worse, maybe they won’t let the food in. Maybe the chaplain forgot to submit the special request to the administrator, and it would be too late to do so at this point. Maybe the officers were giving the rabbi a hard time.
Assuming all of these things and feeling as though I have no recourse, my eyes begin to burn with tears that I fight back. This is not a place to let people see me cry.
Suddenly, the door swings open and Rabbi Leverton is standing there with the biggest smile a person could muster. As if I am the only person in the world, he shouts out my nickname as loudly as he can: “Moe!” I am so happy to see him that I forget my tears and decide to forgive him his cheerfulness. I see he’s empty-handed and I ask him if they denied the food. As I ask the question two guards step into the chapel, each carrying huge boxes. I should have known that nobody gives this rabbi a hard time. His very presence commands respect.
He brought me all of the traditional New Year foods along with a shofar, a holiday prayer book and a new Aleph calendar. Although I am wearing a happy face, he can tell that something is wrong. When he asks me about it, I let him know I’m feeling hopeless. I explain that I can’t even fathom what eight more years will bring.
The rabbi looks at me and starts to compare me to an onion. He’s saying something to the effect that I am like its layers and that each time rot sets in, a layer is peeled and a newer fresher one is underneath. While he’s saying this, all I can think is that onions stink.
The rabbi asks me if I know how to blow the shofar. I tell him that my father had taught me years ago. He hands it to me and I try to blow it. I don’t do very well. He takes it from me and proceeds to blow the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. I could hold back no longer. Without warning, the tears that threatened to start earlier begin to stream down, staining my cheeks. I am reminded of walking with my father to shul to hear the shofar. It makes me realize how much I miss my family and they are missing me. My body is racked with sobs like a hysterical child.
After I collect myself, the rabbi explains to me that one of the sounds of the shofar, shevarim, represents the crying of the Jewish heart. He explains that we are crying for the missed opportunities of the past year, our misdeeds, repentance and, most importantly, the yearning to connect and grow. At the moment the shofar is blown, he says all the Jewish people are standing in front of our creator as one — no walls or barriers, and certainly no bars or barbed wire fences. My family and I will be together. I smile.
I begin feeling like a new person, cleansed of sorrow and grief, free of pain and the walls that surround me. I explain this by telling him how good it felt to cry. He then tells me that for now on, whenever I need to cry and can’t, due to my environment, I should just let the shofar do the crying for me. He tells me to just close my eyes and remember what it sounded like, and I will feel the same way I feel right now. He gives me a hug and leaves. As he walks, out I think how much I love that man for his words, his kindness and especially his optimism.
On Rosh Hashanah that year, alone in the chapel, I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for my family and I prayed to be a better person and a better Jew. I was not miserable, but I did feel lonely. Until I blew that shofar. Or at least until I tried to. I am sure that it didn’t sound majestic or mystical, but to me, in my head, it sounded just the way the rabbi blew it two days earlier. Just like my father blew it for me so many years before.
I was not alone anymore. I was standing as one with my family, my friends, my people. I was connected, happy and free. It was at that point I knew that although there may be times that I would feel lonely, I would never be alone again.