Jewish Journal

Understanding the Duality of Jewish Criminals

by Lia Mandelbaum

March 21, 2011 | 10:46 pm

This image is from a personal photo documentary project by Laurel Johnson focusing on incarceration and the healing journey towards freedom

On March 1,  I received a message from a dear friend, asking me if I would be interested in getting a part time job visiting Jewish inmates in jail and prison as a field rep and counselor.  Although I had plans to be a full-time student, I wanted to apply because it would be an incredibly powerful experience.  The more I thought about the possibility, the more passionate I felt about the potential of my experience.  Over the past 4 years I have heard many fascinating stories and experiences from people who have been incarcerated.

Learning From Others

Through my experience with Beit T’Shuvah I lived and worked with people who had been inmates, and had deep and meaningful relationships with them.  The truth is that when I first moved into BTS I was judgmental and naïve.  I thought in black and white and good and bad…they were bad.  As I lived with them and heard their stories I came to see them as people and not just as criminals.  They were Jews, non-Jews, junkies, doctors, sisters, brothers, thieves, gangsters, poets, sexual offenders, con artists, businesspeople and athletes.  They were a collection of contradictions.  They were pet lovers, abusive, hard working family people, deceitful, strung out, possessed by addiction, violent, kind, and sensitive.  They were resentful, sorrowful, hateful, ashamed, lost, willing to change their ways, not willing to change their ways, humble and narcissistic.  They lived in duality, but for them the dark side over powered them to the point of needing to be removed from society.  Although my story does not involve incarceration, I related to many stories.  I could see myself in them.  Within their struggle to live decently, I observed and found them to be some of my greatest teachers. 

Coming to Know Myself

For a long time I felt like a prisoner in my head.  I felt trapped by a belief system that told me I was stupid, unlovable, bad and worthless.  I was severely depressed, angry, lost and hopeless. I felt trapped in the closet, hiding my identity as a gay woman. There had been a period of about 7 months where I was so depressed that I struggled to process these thoughts.  Each of these thoughts were like the bars in a jail cell.  I didn’t believe that I could ever be joyful again. 

I share these personal struggles with you to highlight how after hearing their stories, my interpretation is that many people who have been incarcerated go through similar emotions.  I believe that it is important to be conscious of how every human being can relate to each others vulnerabilities on some level. 


I imagined being trapped in my mind, while also incarcerated in a tiny cell and I couldn’t fathom it.  You are forced to face yourself and the consequences of your actions every day.  You don’t have the drugs to numb you or the rush from committing crime to distract you from facing yourself and your ghosts.  It blew my mind that people could survive and remain sane through that experience.  There are some people who still have access to drugs while in prison and don’t face themselves. They even get arrested over and over again never learning their lesson.  They do not have the desire to change and are actually comfortable being locked up. 

The Desire to Change

People who use jail and prison as a way to transform their lives to live as decent human beings can potentially be some of the most humble and grateful people, with a true appreciation and joy for life.  They do not take their freedom for granted.  I had become friends with a woman who had spent 23 years in prison for planning a crime that led to a murder.  She actually believed she would spend her entire life in prison.  Today, she is someone with more integrity and compassion then most people I know.  She is another person who used the experience as transformation.  I have a great sense of respect for people like her.


Learning to see the humanity and experience empathy with people who have struggled and were able to overcome their situations has been my most powerful lesson.  I have not experienced the loss of someone close to me by the hands of a criminal.  If I did, I can understand not wanting to see the humanity in that person, but I do know that the power of forgiveness is incredibly transforming and freeing.  I’m sure that anger is like being trapped in a prison, and forgiveness can set you free.


I am not making light of any crimes, I just truly believe that seeing their humanity and understanding where they may be coming from is powerful.  I have healed by understanding where I come from and why I may have acted out like I did.  Most criminals have a history of abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences in childhood.

Final Thoughts

I have heard a story about a Rabbi, told by Harriet Rossetto, who is the founder and CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, which I would like to share with you.  “There was a highly regarded and well-respected Rabbi who spent a lot of his time and found the most joy in talking and studying with people who were drunks, criminals and thieves.  One day, a fellow townsperson went up to the Rabbi and said “ You’re such a wonderful and holy man, how could you possibly relate to these people.  You’re nothing like them.”  The Rabbi responded by saying “if I feel like I cannot see a part of them in myself, then I know that I am not looking deep enough”

Seeing the humanity in those who also struggle helps me to be able to see the humanity in myself.  It is these profound lessons that make me want that job.  I found out that I’m a candidate for the position and it makes me very happy.  Whatever happens is meant to be.

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Tera “Nova Jade* Greene is a professional lesbian of color and Jew by Choice.  She is a producer of music and film, a renowned DJ and always finds herself in the midst of...

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