Rabbi Charles Feinberg
4th Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door
Thursday, October 27, 2022
Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to thank the founders of IAHR, the first board members: Suzanne O’Hatnick, Gay Gardner, Bonnie Tamres-Moore, Jack Lahr, Zainab Chaudry, Dick Marks, and Rev Maybelle Bennett. A special mention goes to Susan Kerin, who while not on the founding board of IAHR, was instrumental in creating our first website and in supporting what we were about to embark on.
We were united by our commitment in our mission and our work. As many of you know, I was a congregational rabbi for 42 years. Part of the challenge of being a leader in a religious community is bringing together a group of people who are sometimes not united around a mission and who have differing opinions on what should be the top priorities of the congregation. When the group asked me to become the executive director upon my retirement from this synagogue, I was excited. I felt I was part of a group who was united in their dedication to the mission and to what our priorities should be. In a sense that made the work easy.
I especially want to thank Sue Emmer and Brian Hess, who recently became board members and who took on the responsibility of planning this event. They have done a outstanding job and they deserve everyone’s thanks.
They could not have done such an outstanding without the able assistance of Brittney Floyd, IAHR’s database entry specialist, social media director, and my assistant. Special thanks to Brittney for making sure the zoom goes well. I also want to thank Natasha White, who is IAHR’s director of community engagement in Virginia. She made a special trip to be with us tonight. Natasha has done excellent work reaching out to many different community and religious groups throughout the state of Virginia. Special thanks should go to Kim Haven, who is IAHR’s legislative liaison with the Maryland Legislature. We contract with Kim each year to shepherd our legislation through the Maryland Legislature. Kim has done outstanding work representing IAHR and getting several legislative bills passed. Please give a hand to Brittney, Natasha, and Kim.
Finally, I want to welcome Rev Dr. David Lindsey who has already taken up the mantle of leadership. I will be formally stepping down at the end of December, but David has begun and has already made many excellent contributions to IAHR. I have every confidence that David will be an outstanding leader and will develop our work in new and exciting ways. Please give your thanks to Rev Lindsey.
What Drew Me to This Work
People often express surprise that I have become dedicated to working on human rights abuses in prisons. They don’t perceive that this is something that a rabbi would choose to be involved in. 40 years ago I was a congregational rabbi in Madison, WI. Sadly, that was a time as it is today when Central American refugees were a divisive political issue. The synagogue I led, Beth Israel Center, decided to become a sanctuary congregation. We along with three other churches welcomed a Guatemalan family of six: a mother, father, and four little children. The father was an union organizer in Guatemala and one of his colleagues was assassinated. Fearing that he was next, he picked up his family and went north. Our government at the time refused to welcome people such as the Gonzalez family as refugees. They were clearly fleeing political oppression. We welcomed them, we found an apartment for the whole family, and we supported them for almost 18 months until they were able to legally emigrate to Canada.
People leaving prison in this country are not that different than refugees fleeing oppression in a distant country. Too often incarcerated people are abused sometimes by other incarcerated people, but just as much if not more by correctional officers. Sometimes, they fear for their lives. If they complain and protest unfair treatment, often correctional officers will retaliate and make their lives miserable.
Many times, people are put in extended solitary confinement without being told why they are being punished. Then they have to put up with the official line that solitary is never used to punish anybody. People in prison live in a society in which they have no power and which they are incredibly vulnerable to the power of the people who run the institution. Too often people leave prison more broken than when they entered.
When the incarcerated come home what do we do? We punish them some more. We make it exceedingly difficult to find housing and employment. For those who enter prison without an adequate education or with few skills, they come out without an adequate education and few skills. We don’t use prison to help people who need more education to receive it. Then we are surprised that they cannot make it when they are released. Nor does prison help people understand how the world has changed during the time they have been incarcerated. Think about someone who entered prison 25 yeas ago. 25 years ago, few people used cell phones, email was just becoming widely used, and no one drove a hybrid or electric car. 25 years ago people were still driving Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Saturns. No one ordered clothes or chairs from Amazon, only books and music.
I got involved in prison work for the same reason I was involved in welcoming refugees and migrants. The Hebrew Bible teaches us that are three commandments to love: God, our neighbor, and the stranger. Incarcerated people too often are strangers or neighbors and need our love and support. Just as we don’t give our love and support to refugees and migrants, we don’t give our love and support to incarcerated people. That needs to change.
I also got involved in this work for another reason. I believe in the teaching that opens the book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible: every human being is created in the image of God. For me that means that every human has an irreducible core that is holy, that reflects the divine. Every human being, no matter what he or she has done, must be treated with respect because they reflect God’s image. Sadly, people in prison are rarely, if at all, treated with any respect. Treat them like animals they will act like animals.
The creation story also underlies my faith in another way. People can change. Every day is an occasion for change. In the Jewish daily prayer we say twice each morning this phrase: “In His goodness, God renews the act of creation every day.” Every day God offers us the opportunity to change our habits and the way we live. This work has shown me example after example of how people who were out of control, who committed serious crimes, changed their lives. Our pen pals often give eloquent testimony of how they have changed. They are not the same person they were when they entered prison. People do change. Even people who have committed terrible crimes can change and become renewed. They discover their holy core. They come to understand that they were created in the image of God. All they want is an opportunity to make something out of their lives. They need the tools to do that---tools that we can give them. All I can tell you is how satisfying and hopeful it is to meet people who have changed.