Wait…You Want To Do What!?!

This post has been adapted by a blog that I started last year, and I really wanted to share it with Shady Grovers because it is an important part of my social work dreams.

Wait…You Want To Do What!?!

This is often the response I get when I tell people I want to pursue a social career of working with Jewish inmates. I think this blog is a good outlet to explain why, once and for all, I feel so passionate about the career path I’m heading down and why I think it should be given more attention.

Over the past two years, I have become heavily involved in working with incarcerated youth and fighting for their justice. I want to be a social worker, so when I heard of an opportunity to be a mentor in a juvenile delinquent center I thought it would be a good way to gain some experience in the field of helping. Little did I know that this would ignite a huge passion within me that I would stick to. I began to intern at a Nonprofit Organization in Washington D.C., Free Minds Writing Workshop & Book Club, that works with youth while they are being held in adult prisons, and continues to help them throughout the reentry process back into society.

When University of Maryland students were asked to participate in a program that sent different groups of Jewish students out to federal prisons to spend Yom Kippur (one of the most important Jewish fast days) with Jewish inmates, I jumped at the opportunity. The experience that I had cannot be sufficed by words in a blog, but it was a life changing experience, and I left there knowing that these are the type of people I want to be working with. When I would try to relay my experience with others, they were always intrigued but didn’t understand my draw to the prison system and why I felt the need to work with inmates.

According to the Aleph Institute, which is an organization that works with incarcerated Jews, there are a couple thousand incarcerated Jews. This alarmed me because it is a population that I did not even know existed. If I didn’t know, as someone who is pretty immersed in a Jewish community, then I imagined that most around me didn’t know and that scared me. At this point I had been exposed to eleven incredibly intelligent and warm Jewish inmates who were so eager to learn more about Judaism and could not have been more grateful for our presence on Yom Kippur. Many were worried about what would happen when they were released from prison, and if they would be accepted into a Jewish community.

I agree that it does make sense that one would take precautions when hearing the word ex-prisoner, but I want that stigma to be broken SO badly because I think that these people have so much to give to communities once they are released. In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, it states the following: “Let the honor of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own, and do not be easily moved to anger.” Rabbi Abraham Twerski elaborates on this statement by saying that “a particular deed may be despicable, and the person who commits an offense may need to be punished to deter him and others from repeating the act, but the person himself never loses his sanctity.”

It was a few days after my Yom Kippur federal prison experience that I came across this quote and explanation, in the book Living Each Day, and these words sum up exactly why I feel it is so important to work with Jewish prisoners. I look extremely forward to working towards the goal of making these prisoners feel like they can reintegrate into Jewish communities without bearing the shame and stigmas of once having been in prison.

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