Last Saturday was beautiful, profound and meaningful. I spent my afternoon in Shabbat services, enlivening my spirit through singing, reading prayers, and dancing. I was decompressing and cleansing myself of the stresses of the week. Two women in their 50’s were having their B’not Mitzvah, which I came to learn is when two or more women are having a Bat Mitzvah together. Nicole was given the Hebrew name Nechama, which means comfort, and Beverly was given Batya, which means daughter of G-d. The Torah portion that the women flawlessly read was Shelach Lecha, which was when Moses sent out 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the Promised Land (Bamidbar 14: 1-10). During Nechama and Batya’s B’not Mitzvah speeches, I was touched when both women turned towards one another to express whole heartedly how they now saw each other as sisters, cultivated through the bond that they shared while preparing for such a pivotal day in their lives.
California Institute for Women
What was especially profound about the Shabbat service was the juxtaposition between it being such a peaceful space, yet when I looked through the window just behind the women, I saw a very different world. It was a vast space surrounded by barbed wire and with prison guards carrying guns. The service was held at the California Institute for Women, which is a prison in Corona. Rabbi Moshe Halfon, who is the Jewish Chaplain of the facility, led the service. You could see within the eyes of both Nechama and Batya, and all the other incarcerated women in the room, how incredibly meaningful the service was to them. It was very apparent to me that the women were not taking Shabbat for granted, and made the most out of the opportunity to experience some spiritual healing, peace and comfort. They were very present and engaged. It was truly beautiful.
I was witnessing how the power of Judaism has the ability to bring such light and love to the spirits of all these women, despite the nature of the external prison that surrounds them.
You may be wondering how I ended up spending my Shabbat services at a Women’s prison, and so I want to give you the short version of why I became fascinated and inspired to potentially do social work within the incarcerated population. Four years ago, if you were to ask me how I felt about people who were incarcerated, I would have given you a judgmental response with a sense of superiority. Over the past few years as I have gotten the chance to really connect and bond with people who have been incarcerated, it has helped me to shed my judgmental side, and be more compassionate and understanding. I cultivated a profound friendship with someone who had recently gotten out of prison after having served 24 years for planning a robbery that had led to a murder. Given her background, one could easily feel uncomfortable in her presence; however the integrity and spiritual wisdom she exudes creates the exact opposite effect. I was at the Shabbat services at CIW because I want to continue to learn the powerful lessons that I get from being around that population. The moment that I feel any sense of superiority towards another human being, I loose my connection to G-d and to myself.
Both Batya and Nechama talked about the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and the exodus led by Moses, and compared it to the enslavement of their destructive choices and the exodus from living a life of crime. They were choosing to live holy lives, even within the walls of the prison. There were women in the room who were serving life sentences, and will never get the chance to step outside the walls of the prison, yet they had beaming smiles because they understood that they still had the freedom to make the exodus from their internal prison. I believe that almost everyone to a certain extent has experienced some form of imprisonment by our internal struggles. Sometimes we are not even aware of it.
As I sat in the room, I found myself wrestling at different moments with discomfort, however the cause was totally separate of the fact that I was literally in a prison. I wasn’t sure why I was so uncomfortable in my skin, but I knew it was coming from a place of fear and doubt caused by feelings of inadequacy. At one point, as I was standing in the back of the room and watching the women singing and dancing, I thought to myself about how ironic it was that I was feeling as though I was the most uncomfortable person in the room, even though I live such a chaos free and sheltered life in comparison. It is important to me to be non-judgmental, empathetic, and loving towards everyone, however I am not always that way with myself.
Learning About Myself
Beyond my fears and doubts, and the misconceptions that sometimes come along with them, I really do know who I am and believe that I am a great person who is very dedicated and passionate about making a positive impact on others. Although having fears and doubts at times is very normal and a part of the human experience, I know that I shouldn’t feel it as much as I do. Fear and doubt often holds me back from reaching my highest potential. I become stuck in the past, holding onto old ways of thinking, and unable to see things as they truly are. I have missed out on a lot beautiful moments because I was too stuck in the prison in my head. Going back to school has helped me to shed light on why at times I become unaware of or feel disconnected from my own true nature. It has helped empower me to truly be stronger in myself.
Knowledge is Power
Through working hard to gain a greater sense of inner peace and wholeness, I now get the truth behind the saying “knowledge is power.” So far, my education at Cal State LA has helped me to have a more thorough understanding of how bigotry has deeply influenced my identity. Through learning in my classes about racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia, I have gotten a better idea of how these complex belief systems are so deeply rooted within most human beings, often unconsciously influencing our thoughts and behaviors. A great deal of the pain, shame and inadequacy that we feel has been ingrained in us since childhood, by the prejudiced messages and ideologies that we are given by the media, acquaintances, and sometimes even family and friends. These messages ultimately reinforce the lies that tell us to believe that we are inferior and not worthy of being loved.
Homophobia has had a major influence in shaping my identity. I began to truly understand the magnitude of this, as I was putting together a research presentation that I had given at Cal State’s 7th Annual Student Research Conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Power. My thesis was: Societal homophobia effects identity building in the LGBT community in both communal and individual identities. Through working on my presentation I began to understand how to identify and breakdown the different beliefs I may unconsciously have about my sexuality that may trigger feelings of shame or inferiority.
I learned about how the media tends to promote homophobia by reinforcing stereotypes that keep the LGBT community as “the other.” According to The Media Awareness Network “Too often networks and film companies shy away from portraying gays and lesbians for fear of alienating or offending advertisers, investors, and audiences.” Unfortunately there is some validity to their concern because of how homophobia is so alive and breathing.
According to the material I read from the Gay-Straight Alliance, I learned that homophobia also really affects heterosexuals . Homophobia forces heterosexuals to act “macho” if they are a man or “feminine” if they are a woman. This limits their individuality and self-expression. Homophobia causes youth to become sexually active before they are ready in order to prove they are “normal.” This can lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies and STD’s. Homophobia strains family and community relationships.
On The Campaign to End Homophobia website, I learned that there are four distinct but interrelated types of homophobia: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. The form of homophobia that struck me the most was internalized homophobia, which is experienced when lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have strong feelings of fear, discomfort, dislike, hatred, or disgust with same-sex sexuality. I had felt that way for many years of my life. Internalized homophobia is very common within the LGBT community.
I read in a study about some of the affects, behaviors, cognition and defensive functioning associated with internalized homophobia. Some of the affects were: chronic anxiety, self-loathing, depression and distrust. Some of the behaviors were: Alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide and difficulty or avoidance in intimate relationships. Some of the cognitions were: At fault for victimization, innately defective or inferior, low self-esteem, negative attitudes and beliefs.
As I break down the beliefs, I am breaking free of my internal prison.
During my philosophy class, I experienced a surreal moment where I just felt a great sense of clarity of the big picture. I had a smile on my face and felt great peace, which I carried with me outside as the class had ended. There was no doubt in my mind that in that moment I was experiencing pure joy. I felt an amazing sense of unconditional love for myself and everyone else in my life, including the people that I may struggle with. My heart and mind were open, and I was naturally taking deep breaths of air, almost without any effort. I felt free. As I continue to work on breaking down the parts of my belief system that are not based in truth, freedom will become a more integral part of my being. I imagine that this is what Nechama and Batya felt during their B’not Mitzvah.
What I hope for you to take away from reading this blog is an inspiration to want to question and breakdown the untrue beliefs you may have about yourself and the world around you.