It was a moving way to launch Rosh Hashanah, albeit early. Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, serving as chaplain, presided Sept. 21 over New Year gatherings of 27 men and 13 women.
They read from the holiday liturgy, dipped apples in honey, prayed and sang from their hearts. The twist: the congregants were locked up, inmates at the downtown L.A.-area Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Separate services were held for men and women, though, with some logistical effort, the men's service combined inmates from the two county facilities.
Dershowitz, the only Jewish chaplain at the jails, has been conducting services and classes, along with counseling inmates, since Passover. His visits are sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He said that the sheriff's department has been enthusiastic about his sessions with inmates because they have yielded positive results. Dershowitz has already seen signs of progress with the inmates he's studied Torah with. He has witnessed prisoners begin to accept responsibility for their actions.
"One man has been in there three different times on substance abuse," said Dershowitz, "and up to now, he's asked, 'Why did they catch me?' For the first time now after this process, he says, 'You know, why am I blaming others? I have to look at myself. Unless I look at myself, I'll keep on coming back here.'"
Dershowitz - rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple with 25 years of experience as associate rabbi at the Westwood synagogue - realizes that his visits are sometimes "the only Jewish contact in the community" for most of these inmates.
"Many Jews don't really have a meaningful background," said Dershowitz of the prisoners. "We have to now understand what their Judaism is and how they can use it to understand all of the issues they're confronting. That is the challenge."
"I'm very grateful that the Board of Rabbis is doing this," continued Dershowitz. "Every Jew is some mother's kid. They need attention and they need concern. To me it's been a huge revelation."
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis, said, "We know that there is not a single person in that sanctuary who has not fallen in some way from the path and is not in some way a transgressor. That is a powerful Jewish notion. God forbid we should ever stop our outreach to our fellow Jews who have fallen from the path and are paying the price for their crimes."