The Shana Tova redemption

hashanaIt died down a bit in recent years but remember the so-called War on Christmas? That's where various elements in the culture try to secularize or otherwise diminish the sacredness of the season leading up to Christmas. I myself like to talk of the War on Advent (the actual season that precedes Christmas Day) as well as the wars on various other liturgical seasons and festivals. And what about the Jewish liturgical calendar? How much do we read in the mainstream media about the meaning and significance of Jewish holy days? Well, it's what you'd expect from Samuel Freedman, professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and award-winning journalist, but I loved what he did with his "On Religion" column in last Saturday's New York Times. It ends up being about the Ten Days of Repentance, the period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. But it begins with this beautifully-crafted story of Rabbi Jonathan Gerard, a rabbi who retired in 2007 thinking he'd have more time to spend on his private family therapy practice. But last year a Reform colleague asked him to help with a small congregation near Philadelphia:

Somewhat reluctantly, Rabbi Gerard agreed. His new flock numbered only eight, and in certain ways was quite ordinary. The members included a paralegal and a furniture-store owner; only a couple bothered to keep kosher; and the rank and file complained that the congregational president was too bossy.

Still, Rabbi Gerard, 62, arrived for that first Rosh Hashana service with a sermon about the akedah, Abraham's binding of Isaac, a central text in the liturgy, and a chocolate cake baked by his wife, Pearl. It turned out that she had been in the same high school homeroom in Philadelphia as the brother of one of the congregants.

Rabbi Gerard also brought some Honeycrisp apples, symbolizing the hope for a sweet new year. The fruit attracted some quizzical glances, the rabbi noticed. Then he realized why. The Honeycrisp hybrid has been widely sold only in the past decade or so, and during that time many of Rabbi Gerard's worshippers have been in prison.

Indeed, his entire congregation consisted of inmates at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, the largest maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. Whatever prosaic jobs they once held, what put them in Graterford was what the law calls crime and religion calls sin: murder, rape, assault. Four of the eight are serving life sentences.

Freedman packs all of the necessary details about the congregation, describing its chapel and wares and its affiliation with the Reform movement. We learn of its history. But what I really liked was how the story explored Jewish teaching on repentance after a "banner year of proven or alleged misdeeds by Jews." Bernard Madoff's pyramid scheme is mentioned as is the arrest of several New Jersey Rabbis in a scandal involving human organ trafficking:

If Rabbi Gerard's experience at Graterford sheds any light on how the convicted and incarcerated encounter the High Holy Days, it is light that strikes in some unexpected ways. (Officials at Graterford would not permit interviews with individual prisoners or the release of their names.)

Most of the Jewish inmates have come to feel remorse about their crimes, Rabbi Gerard said. One or two continue to profess their innocence. All wrestle with a mixture of remorse and defensiveness.

"Their attitude is, they did a terrible thing -- the ones who admit it -- and they have to pay for it," the rabbi said. "And they think they're paying for it too much. They all know people who did worse things and got lighter sentences. So they don't have a sense of how to do teshuva. They think they're doing teshuva already."

There's much more to the story. Rabbi Gerard says the prisoners need to focus on helping others rather than being "bitterly fixated on their own imprisonment." The inmates are collecting used prayer books to send to Jewish inmates throughout Pennsylvania. You should read the whole thing since it's well done top to bottom. It's not just a good read as a religion story, it's just a beautifully written story. And religion reporters who tire of writing stories about annual holy days and seasons might be inspired to dig around for more stories such as this one.

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