Two women, identified as Carol and Pamela — not their real names — became b’not mitzvah on Saturday, Sept. 5. Both are inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The event is believed to be the first bat mitzvah to take place inside prison walls in the United States.
Carol and Pamela approached the rabbi with the idea of a bat mitzvah six months ago — both are incarcerated for a variety of offenses, including drug-related charges — and their preparation for the day included learning Hebrew and writing a speech. The service took place in the prison chapel, which the Jewish community shares with Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, and was led by Rabbi Moshe Halfon, who has served as Jewish chaplain at the facility for the last three years. Halfon describes himself as a spiritual healer and explorer; he is also a Reconstructionist rabbi and holds a master’s degree in educational psychology and organizational process from Temple University. Halfon is the co-founder of Am Or Olam (People of the Eternal Light), a nonprofit center in Southern California that promotes holistic healing, Jewish spirituality, the arts and, now, prison outreach as well.
Halfon spends Wednesdays through Saturdays at the prison teaching classes, and he conducts services there almost every Friday night and Saturday, as well as additional holiday observances. Halfon’s curriculum includes traditional prayer, but early into his tenure he decided that teaching spirituality, ethics and basic rituals were most important.
Carol, 29, came into the Jewish community not long after arriving at CIW in May 2008. She is of Jewish descent, and was exposed to Judaism as a child through her grandparents, who were Orthodox. Her professional and family life were torn apart as a result of her substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior, and she no longer is in contact with her family. Carol is scheduled for parole in December and hopes to return to a professional life and to one day be reunited with her children, who currently are in foster care.
Pamela, 25, is Jewish and has been incarcerated since December 2007. She did not grow up with a religious background, but by chance was assigned to work in the kosher kitchen at CIW, where she became interested in the community. She has earned an associate degree while at CIW, and she plans to go to college. Her family is currently caring for her 5-year-old son.
Both women undertook intense and dedicated study in preparation for their b’not mitzvah day. Each studied Hebrew on her own time, during hours not filled with work, classes, 12-step programs and other prison-mandated activities.
The women took Hebrew names — Pamela chose Zohara Binah and Carol chose Chava Shira. During the service, they led prayers, chanted the Parashat Nitzavim, and each delivered a devar Torah — both of them on the theme of choosing life. (Even though it wasn’t the week’s portion, the women chose to study Parashat Nitzavim because of their connection to the text and the particular constraints relating to the timing of the service.)
In her writings, Zohara Binah called the Jewish community “a lifeline of hope and light in an abyss of futility and despair.” She said she experiences the “renewal style of Judaism embracing and encompassing other religious philosophies, adding an air of tolerance which is tantamount to spiritual practice behind prison walls.”
Her speech included teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, while Chava Shira spoke personally and pointedly of the mistakes she had made in the past and her commitment to choosing the path of life; she has also written of how she has been influenced by the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Both women are hoping upon release to go to Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish residential addiction recovery center in Culver City.
Numerous volunteers attended the service, including the Rev. Shayna Lester, an interfaith minister who spends two days a week teaching a course in Jewish ethics at the prison, providing spiritual education and guidance to the incarcerated women. During the service, Lester expressed her desire for the two women “to become their truest and most authentic selves.”
In addition, other leaders in the Jewish community flew in from the Bay Area, including Nancy Goldberg, vice president of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco and the surrounding areas. Inmates from the institution’s general population also gathered in the chapel to support the women, participating in the service along with the inmates who regularly attend classes and services. One woman, K, who is not Jewish but a regular at services, holds an advanced degree in economics from Stanford and is incarcerated for a white-collar crime. She said she sought out the community after observing that the women who attended services were “leaving with light in their hearts.”
L, a Jewish inmate who has long been active in the prison’s Jewish community, has been incarcerated for 24 years and has tattoos with the Hebrew words from the Song of Solomon, “I am my beloved, my beloved is mine.” At the time of the service, L was scheduled for release in 14 days and hopes to stay connected to the Jewish community.
Traditional Jewish songs along with standards like “Stand by Me” were played. Carol and another inmate performed an a cappella version of Christina Aguilera’s “You Are Beautiful.”
Institutional regulations prevented Pamela’s parents from attending, but they sent an inspirational message that was read aloud by the inmate congregants. Pamela’s father wrote of his love for her, saying, “I love you yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Her mother sent a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”
Ariella Lewis, co-founder with Halfon of Am Or Olam, read words of inspiration to Carol, speaking of two sephirot (emanations) on the kabbalistic tree of life: Netzach, the quality of endurance, and Hod, the quality of integrity and majesty — qualities needed to stand up as individuals.
The horn blew at 4:30 p.m., calling the inmates back to their units, a sudden and stark reminder that some in attendance were convicted felons and others would leave to resume their lives outside. Zohara Binah, Chava Shira and the other inmates returned to their evening institution regimen.
Actress and writer Annabelle Gurwitch hosts the carbon foot printing series “WA$TED” on Planet Green Network. Her new book, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up,” a love story co-written with her husband, Jeff Kahn, will be published by Crown Books in February 2010.
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