"We are Jonah"

On September 30 which was also the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Rabbi Feinberg gave a sermon at the Hill Havurah, a Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This is the text of the sermon. 

Jonah’s Story

The story of the Jonah the prophet is an essential text for the Jewish observance of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  The story is read during the afternoon service.  The story is actually one of the 15 prophetic books in the Prophetic section of the Hebrew Bible.  Here is a summary of the story. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh; instead he hops a ship to Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction.

Jonah falls asleep in the bottom of the boat while a storm brews.  The storm intensifies and the sailors perceive that someone has offended the gods.  They cast lots and Jonah comes up short.  The sailors want to know who Jonah is. 

He tells them he is a Hebrew and that he fears the God of Heavens who made the sea and the dry land. 

The sailors are very afraid and ask Jonah what they should do since he seems to be responsible for the storm.  Jonah says to them to throw him overboard.  The sailors are pious and don’t want to offer up Jonah to his God.  They call out to God begging him not to destroy them.  They don’t want to spill innocent blood. But Jonah instructs them to throw him overboard in order to save themselves as well as the passengers and animals on the ship.  

After the sailors throw Jonah overboard, the storm passes and the sea is calm.  The sailors again are filled with fear and awe and offer up a sacrifice to God and make pledges of future offerings to the God of Israel.

God invites a large fish to swallow Jonah.  Jonah prays to God and after three days and nights the fish spits Jonah out. 

God then instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and to deliver a message: “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Lo and behold, the people of Nineveh declare a fast and dress in sackcloth.  The King also rises from his throne, dons sackcloth, and sits in ashes.  Everyone fasts: young and old as well as large animals.  Even the animals fast! 

The people repent for their evil ways and the violence in their hands.  The implication is that they have shed innocent blood.

God’s anger dissipates and God decides not to do to them what He had promised.  That is, for the time being God forgives them.

Jonah is furious at God.  Jonah says to God I always knew that you were a gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, full of loving kindness, and renouncing punishment.  Jonah believes that we should not forgive sinners and evildoers until they are punished.  The people of Nineveh did terrible things, they have blood on their hands! How can God let them off the hook without punishment?!

What does Jonah do?  He walks to the east of the city.  God causes a squash plant to grow over him providing shade.  God then causes the squash plant to shrivel and up and die. He brings the east wind and raises the temperature to 100 plus degrees.  He asks Jonah, “Is anger good for you?”  Jonah says “anger is good for me until death.”  God says “you did not nothing to cause the squash to grow.  It came and went.  Should I not have compassion for a city with 12,000 residents and much cattle?”

The story raises many questions but two are most salient for me today: Why is Jonah so angry and why did he go sit in the sun on the east side of the city? 

Jonah is angry at God for forgiving the people without punishing them and without being sure that their Teshuvah (repentance) is sincere.  So what does Jonah do?  Jonah decides to travel to the eastern side of Nineveh.  There Jonah sits and waits.  What is he waiting for?  He believes the Teshuvah (repentance) is insincere and is waiting to see the city recidivate.  He wants to tell God, “I told you so!”  He believes that all the rituals of repentance—sackcloth, ashes, fasting—were a sham.  Jonah doesn’t trust that the people will continue to act justly.

The Story of Michelle Jones & Reginald Dwayne Betts

Let me tell you two modern stories that I believe are connected to the story of Jonah.

Michelle Jones served 20 years in prison for a heinous crime: murdering her 4-year-old son. During her two decades behind bars, Ms. Jones compiled a record an extraordinary record of accomplishment. She published a scholarly article on the first prisons for women in the United States. She wrote a play that will open in December in an Indianapolis theater. She led a team of incarcerated women whose efforts won the Indiana Historical Society’s prize for best research project for 2016. Not the best research project by prisoners, but the best project. Period.

But Ms. Jones’s stunning record wasn’t good enough for top administrators at Harvard University. In a rare move, they overturned the history department’s admission recommendation and rejected Ms. Jones.  However, NYU did accept her and she recently started a doctoral program there.

Ms. Jones’s remarkable story put me in mind of a similar one — that of Reginald Dwayne Betts, the Yale Law graduate whose initial application to the Connecticut bar was recently rejected. Mr. Betts, who was convicted of carjacking in 1996 when he was 16, went on to astonishing success after his release in 2005, including publishing two books, earning BA and MFA degrees, and being accepted by Yale Law School. Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut Bar Exam and he is now employed as a Public Defender in Connecticut. 

There is one catch.  The Connecticut Bar refused to admit him even though he passed the exam.  According to the Bar, all attorneys have to be of good moral character.  Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.” As he continues to pursue admission to the bar, it’s clear that what matters most is the crime he committed as a teenager.  Very recently due to public pressure, the Connecticut Bar admitted Mr. Betts. 

What is the connection between the ancient story of Jonah and the modern stories of Michelle Jones and Reginald Dwayne Betts?

Harvard and the Connecticut bar are Jonah. And more importantly, too many of us are today’s Jonah.  Even with punishment we don’t believe people can change and renew their lives.  Better said, we don’t trust that the people who have committed violent crimes have really changed. Remember Jonah was angry at God because God forgave without punishing.  But our society punishes like no other on earth. And still we have a hard time being ready to forgive men and women who have done bad things, often violent acts, who have served long prison sentences, but who have also done Teshuvah and are ready to renew their lives.

I have experienced these things myself. I have made friends with returning citizens.  Some of them committed violent crimes.  One man I know who is now a leader in the DC Reentry Community was convicted of murder over 30 years ago.  He served a 25 year sentence. He reports to me that there are people with whom he associates who are afraid to invite him into their homes. We are Jonah!  We want people to be punished!  Not only that we have a very difficult time forgiving and accepting people who have done bad things but who have done Teshuvah. 

Ms. Jones and Mr. Betts are very accomplished people.  They are clearly very smart and capable.  What does it say about us that people who are not only brilliant but have also changed their lives have to overcome such obstacles?  Do their stories just serve to undermine the efforts of tens of thousands of incarcerated people to change their lives?  “If two such brilliant people have such trouble convincing liberals that they have changed, what chance do they have? Especially, if they have little education and are not skilled? How can they persuade others that they have truly changed?”

We often lament the fact that over 2 million Americans are in prison; that 30% of all the women in prison in the world are in American prisons.  Yet we—you and I—are the reason for this.  We tolerate brutal prisons, with extraordinary rates of men and women committed to solitary confinement, who are not given proper medical or psychological care, who are isolated from their family and community and with limited educational opportunities. 

Then when these men and women are released from prison, we make it next to impossible for them to find work or housing.  Then we shake our heads and are surprised that so many recidivate.

What Can We Do?

20 years ago, the District was in bad financial and political shape.  At that time the District and the Congress decided to take away from the District most of their criminal justice responsibilities and obligations.  Federal prosecutors prosecute all the felonies committed in the District.  The Public Defender Service is funded by Congress.  The District closed its prison in Virginia.  Any DC resident convicted of a felony serves his or her sentence in a federal prison.

Today, approximately 4600 DC residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country.  DC residents are in prison in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, to name a few states. 

This means that DC residents are doubly isolated.  They are isolated from their community and family.  The majority are poor and their families cannot afford many trips out west or south to visit them.  They are also isolated in these prisons.  They are from a city that is often demonized in many parts of our country. 

Much research indicates that the rate of recidivism is a function of whether a prisoner is in touch with his family and community.  The more isolated she is, the more likely she will return to prison after her release. 

To address this issue in one way, IAHR has launched a pen pal project.  The aim of the project is to connect those of living in the District or in the suburbs with a DC resident in prison.  We are asking each pen pal to write at least once a month for one year. Then you can decide if you want to continue or not.  Many of the prisoners have access to email.  So you don’t necessarily have to write a snail mail letter.  In addition, we are planning an orientation for pen pals. We have guidelines that we want everyone to abide by.  In addition to the orientation, we plan to hold periodic meetings for the pen pals so they can share experiences and talk about any issues that may come up. 

IAHR has advertised the program in 10 different federal facilities. We have received a very strong response.  We need your help in order to make this program a success. We have flyers promoting the program.  If you want to get involved, you can contact me.  My contact info is on the flyer.  If you are interested in helping organize part of the program, please talk to me during the break. 

On one level, this is a program to reach out to lonely isolated DC residents who are scattered around the country.  On another level, I hope that those who become pen pals will begin to view the person they are writing to not only as a number, not only as a convicted felon, but as a person with a soul.  I hope and pray that people like you and me will learn about the conditions in our prisons.  You will understand that many of those residing in our prisons want to do Teshuvah and want to renew their lives.  By reaching out to these men and women, we can begin to change the culture that usually wants to write these people off. 

Join with me in reaching out to the incarcerated.  Join with me in saving souls!  


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