A Concert Behind Bars
Most Jewish people I know have never set foot in L.A. County jails or a California state prison. Were they to do so, they would discover dangerous overcrowding in most penal institutions.
They would see tens of thousands of inmates struggling to survive the daily routines of prison life. And they would discover their fellow Jews behind bars — men and women who face enormous additional challenges. Too often, these inmates encounter virulent anti-Semitism at the hands of prisoners and guards. Strident missionaries from inside and outside the prison walls harass them. Jails and prisons test the resolve of those who choose to identify as Jews. They are too few in number to stand up to gangs and other hostile forces.
For all that, they remain our fellow Jews and deserve support from the Jewish community. That’s why the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Jewish Federation send Rabbi Yossi Carron, the dynamic Jewish chaplain at Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), to L.A. County jails each week. There he works small miracles.
He offers basic Jewish and Hebrew instruction to small groups of inmates. He provides one-on-one teaching and counseling to prisoners in isolation units. Carron brings in matzah for Pesach, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and hamantaschen for Purim — all carefully scrutinized by a suspicious yet curious jail staff. He brings doughnuts for the guards, knowing that a simple act of compassion for the corrections staff opens up doors (literally and figuratively) for his lifesaving programs.
Carron has a uniquely challenging rabbinate. He teaches, learns and prays with Jewish inmates in the county jails. He serves as the Jewish ambassador to inmates of other faiths and to the corrections personnel. In his work at MCJ and the adjacent Twin Towers facility, Carron embodies a message of connectedness, respect and rehabilitation. He brings hope and healing to a dark and lonely corner of our community.
On Mother’s Day, May 8, I participated in a multifaith program at the MCJ, where more than 400 mostly non-Jewish inmates gathered in the MCJ chapel for a concert conceived and produced by Carron. He is no stranger to the world of music, having worked for many years as a singer and bandleader before entering rabbinical school at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He called in a multitude of favors to win approval of the concert from corrections officers and his fellow chaplains.
Carron called upon several of his musical friends to play in the band, among them Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, a drummer and rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades. For an hour they entertained inmates and staff with a “Jewish revival” that featured Hebrew, English and Spanish music. The strains of “Oseh Shalom” mixed easily with the rhythms of “La Bamba” and “Go Down Moses.” “Jailhouse Rock” was certainly the most raucous and popular song, both for the inmates and the members of the band.
The concert was awesome. Boundaries of race, religion and background melted away in Carron’s energetic presence. Inmates from different cellblocks sat together, clapped and sang along with Carron and his band. I joined Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist chaplains on stage as the chorus for the final number, a rousing rendition of Debbie Friedman’s “Tefillat Haderech” (Prayer for a Journey). After the finale, the audience of inmates rose for a spontaneous standing ovation, a rare display of joyful appreciation within the walls of the county jail.
On Yom Kippur eve, we introduce the hallowed words of the Kol Nidre prayer with the phrase, “We hereby declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed.” The liturgy reflects the harsh reality of human existence and a cardinal precept of Jewish tradition. All of us are imperfect and require atonement and cleansing. Were we perfect, there would be no need for biblically mandated guilt offerings and sin offerings. Were we free of blemishes and imperfections, there would be need for elaborate rites of teshuvah (repentance) and annual Days of Awe. Were we living in a perfect society, there would be no need for tikkun olam, deeds of social justice for the disenfranchised in our midst.
Few segments of the community are as marginalized and disenfranchised as prisoners and their families. Too often we hear public cries to “lock them up and throw away the key.” We know better. We understand that rehabilitation is only possible when we look beyond prisoners’ numbers and beyond the badges of their jailers to see the essential humanity of each individual. We know that imperfect, blemished human beings deserve our care and concern wherever they may be found. We recognize that transformation and redemption come slowly — one small step at a time, one precious human soul at a time.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California