New Year brings new hope to inmates
Daniel, a 24-year-old UCLA student, has gotten under my skin. I met him a month ago when I followed Rabbi Yossi Carron on his rounds through Men’s Central Jail
and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Daniel had a few more days to serve on the six-month sentence he received after his was convicted of dealing methamphetamine to some of his fellow Bruins — most likely, his release date would fall just before or just after Rosh Hashanah.
When I learned Daniel would be celebrating his last day in jail during the New Year’s service Carron organized for his prison shul, I asked to tag along.
In a hallway at Men’s Central on a Tuesday afternoon, Carron and three rabbinical students are maneuvering a pair of rickety carts loaded with prayer books and a Rosh Hashanah feast past a prisoner-painted mural that depicts a SWAT team, guns raised, staring down passersby.
At one point, several packages of pita bread slide off the top of one of the loads. At the rear of the convoy, where a Torah scroll on loan from a Sephardic temple nestles under a tallit, someone makes a joke about Uzzah — the poor guy in 2 Samuel, chapter 6, who meets with God’s wrath when he touches the Ark to keep it from bouncing off an ox cart.
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is onhand, along with half a dozen volunteers. As the afternoon sun slants through broken windowpanes 20 feet above the concrete floor, this small group of Jews lays tablecloths and arranges flowers to transform a disused prison dining hall into sacred space.
Simon — his name, like those of other inmates, has been changed to protect his identity — is one of the first inmates to arrive. Now 30, he has lived on the streets or in jail since he was 15. His arms are inked with menacing skulls and demons, but the most affecting tattoo is a single teardrop on his left cheek — a memento he got when his time behind bars passed the five-year mark.
“I get out again in 33 days,” he says, adding that his first stop will be a drug treatment center in Torrance. “This time I’m staying out.”
Eventually the room holds about 20 inmates from Men’s Central and from Twin Towers Correctional Facility across the street.
“You have more rabbis and rabbis-to-be in this room than you’ll ever see again in your life,” Carron tells the men in his prison shul. “Mingle and make use of them.”
The soft buzz of friendly conversation fills the hall.
I manage to get in a few words with Daniel, who looks quietly jubilant.
“Man, this feels so good,” he tells me. “This is like the perfect way to end this experience. I’ve learned so much. It sounds strange, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”
At another table, Gary, an inmate whose hard years are etched onto a face that resembles a walnut, has recognized Pauline Lederer, a wheelchair-bound but sharp-witted nonagenarian who has been volunteering in Los Angeles County jails since the 1930s.
“I first met Pauline in 1983!” Gary exclaims.
After her conversation with Gary, Pauline says, “Things aren’t going well for him. Spending so much time in here is bad for the soul. It’s very sad, but I hope this helps.”
Soon Carron asks everyone to take a seat so that service can begin. Over the next hour, he weaves prayers recalling the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt with the traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy. Noam Raucher delivers a homily about how his experience shadowing Carron has shaped his understanding of teshuvah, and Alison Abrams opens the rosewood ark to read a passage from the Torah.
At the end of the service, Michael Chusid, a veteran of last year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration at Men’s Central, blows the shofar.
“Every generation has to overcome terrible suffering,” Carron says later, after the last of the roasted chicken and apple tart has disappeared. “What we’re doing on Rosh Hashanah is redeeming that holy spark within us, which is what happened when we crossed the Red Sea. It also points toward the freedom that I hope each of these guys will experience in some way in the New Year.”
Carron’s hope reminds me of Daniel, who’s marking the New Year and his newfound freedom by returning to a life that will be completely the same and totally different from the life he knew six months ago. Really, each day is like that — each day is the beginning of a new year. That’s easy to say, but hard to accept. In my own life, I’m starting to realize that, for now, it’s enough to move through each day as if I accepted it.
So whenever you happen to be reading this, Shana Tova.