When we think of the concept of teshuvah - repentance, return, change - we think of Yom Kippur, and the idea of reflection and apology. This kind of teshuvah is special and exceptional, in that we as Jews are afforded the opportunity to wipe the slate clean but once a year. Even though we can always say we are sorry; even though our daily Amidah prayer includes the words סלח לנו אבינו שחטאמו, מחל לנו מלכינו כי פשנו - forgive us father for we have sinned, pardon us sovereign for we have erred - the tradition teaches in the Talmud that the real atonement happens just once, and then we are clean.
But there are places in the world where teshuvah is not a fleeting idea that a person indulges in for one day, but rather is an everyday thing. One somesuch place is prison.
Prisons and jails of course serve many parallel roles, in theory, for those that are incarcerated there. They serve as a bulwark of safety and isolation for the rest of society - a place where people deemed too dangerous to live responsibly with their fellow human are sent so that they do not terrorize, disrupt, or destroy the lives of those outside any longer. Prison is a place for punishment - an experience of the deprivation of freedom and leisure time and comfort meant to exact a toll on a person that will remind them of their ill doings. Prison is meant to be a deterrent - a way to keep folks with large chunks of morally grey area in their consciences from stealing ipods at target and boosting cars when the opportunity presents itself. Although prison is likely some kind of deterrent against illegal behavior, studies suggest that it isn’t nearly as effective in that respect as one might think. California is now beyond its 25th year in an experiment with a so-called three strikes law, a law that once imposed a mandatory life sentence on criminals who commit a third felony. Studies have been unable to show that this three strikes law actually deterred crime in any measurable way. The law put away some folks that might otherwise be deemed irredeemable, unwilling to change, and incorrigible. But it also incarcerated thousands of addicts and non-violent offenders and folks who just made bad choices at a down and out stage in their life. In at least a partial admission that the three-strikes law isn’t really a deterrent, the statute was amended in 2012 to make the mandatory life sentence for a third strike apply only to those that commit a violent felony.
Prisons are also supposed to serve as a place for rehabilitation, repentance, and change. Whereas in Pennsylvania the authority in charge of prisons and prisoners is called the Department of Corrections, in California it is called the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Although different prisons in different places achieve the goal of rehabilitation to varying degrees - some offer the opportunity to get a college degree while others literally offer little more than a striped uniform and bread with cheese and water - the idea still fundamentally exists that in prison, a man or woman has the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes, change their trajectory, and emerge from prison reborn.
I want to add an important and related addendum here: the Jewish legal tradition doesn’t really believe in the notion of prison. Punishment in Judaism in biblical, rabbinic, and medival times took one of four forms - capital punishment for the worst offenses; banishment to a city of refuge - a kind of internal exile - for another category of cases; monetary compensation for most cases of personal injury or theft; and finally, indentured servitude in cases where a person has done personal or monetary injury but cannot pay restitution. One thing to note about all these punishments is that they are relational - the person that wrongs another doesn’t go away to some hidden place where they are forgotten. They must to some degree make right the thing that they did wrong. In the old days, if a guy stole your horse and sold it, then blew on the money on silly things before his arrest, he worked off his debt to you. He lived in your barn or a farm house and plowed and sowed your field for months or years to compensate for the loss. The Western invention of the modern prison was about punishment. The Jewish concept of what we should do to a person that has committed a criminal offense is that the offender must make it right to the person they have wronged. This idea is, of course, an important one for us to consider in thinking about how we partake in Yom Kippur.
Prisons are a fascinating case study in the concept of teshuvah - repentance, return, change - on a lot of levels. For one, they ask questions about whether a person can change themselves, or whether they can be forced to change externally. For another, they introduce and subject individuals to specific circumstances of reward and opportunity in order to encourage the possibility of change. And third, they introduce a specific element into the mix - time. Prison sentence length implies that the amount of time one is sentenced behind bars is related somehow to the amount of time it takes a person to change that behavior. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the time behind bars is only about punishment - crime X is heinous, so we give that person 25 years; crime Y is bad but not so bad, so they get 8 years.
Of course, one might ask - does the length of a person’s time in prison make it easier or harder to reform their behavior? Does a person behind bars for 20 years regret their choices, adjust their life’s trajectory, and produce meaningful change? Or conversely, does time away from free society alienate folks from what it is to be a productive and well-adjusted member of society, and therefore make it harder and harder as the years go on for an ex-con to readjust to our society?
The simple answer, based on a study done by the federal government, is that prison sentences longer than 5 years result in slightly lower rates of recidivism, and terms 10 years and longer sharply reduce the rates of recidivism. But we all know that ‘person does not go back to jail’ isn’t a wonderful or precise determinant of human success. A person could be homeless, or dead, or barely eking out a living on the margins of society, but as long as they hadn’t gone back to jail, that would be enough by this metric. We all know that there’s a big difference between surviving and thriving; between being truly remorseful vs simply going through the motions. There is a big difference between floundering through life without direction and living intentionally, with joy and purpose.
There are hundreds of programs around the country meant to help transition formerly incarcerated individuals back into society in a way that is meaningful and productive. I myself have spent a week at one such program in Los Angeles, a halfway house and addiction recovery program run by a Jewish organization called Beit Teshuvah. I got to know residents who were in drug addiction recovery and residents who were fresh out of prison after stints that ranged from 2 to 12 years. I remember one resident telling the story of his struggle. How, one day, he was out working his job in the community as a mover, and he was moving something into a restaurant. And they had left him alone in by the counter to put stuff away, and the cashier had left to get something out of the back, and had left a $5 bill sitting on the counter. And our friend knew he could take it - could take this $5 bill - and nobody would know. And he said no - that was the old me. If I stole this $5, I could go back to jail. But that wasn’t what stopped him. He had resolved after prison to change his ways. The old ways were ways of criminality, and even if he could get away with it, he wasn’t that guy anymore. He had changed. Or at least, he was trying to change. When the cashier returned, he said ‘hey, that $5 belongs in the register.’ The cashier thank him.
That story reminded me almost exactly of a story in the Talmud.
In Sanhedrin 25a, we learn the following:
What is the remedy [for a butcher who sells treifot (non-kosher meat)? It is in accordance with the statement of Rav Idi bar Avin, he says: One who is suspected of selling treifot to others [must] go to a locale where they do not recognize him and return a lost item of substantial value that he finds.
Our Talmudic story mirrors my story from Beit Teshuvah - in order to prove to others, and himself, that he could be a trustworthy individual, a man changed locations and took it upon himself to return something demonstrating that he was changed.
These stories of regret and remorse and change are something that fascinates me. As my congregants, I think you all know me well enough to know that I am an optimist in regards to humanity. I fundamentally believe in the capacity for humans to overcome and improve, and that the future will always be better than the past, if we work at it. I also believe that anyone - ANYONE - has the capacity for change and for good. This interest in human redemption stories has lead me to become a fan and devotee of a podcast about life in San Quentin prison called Ear Hustle.
Ear Hustle is a podcast started as a project of the media lab inside San Quentin. For prisoners with a long record of good behavior, they have access to recording equipment that they can use to make music or talk shows. Volunteers from outside the prison also assist from time to time in teaching the skills that will help the inmates produce the audio. The podcast is by Earlonn Woods and Nigel Poor. Woods began on the podcast in 2017 as inmate, but was released from prison in 2018. The show was a 2017 nominee for a Peabody Award, and a 2020 nominee for the Pulitzer prize. It covers all aspects of prison life, from jobs and food, to the experience of the guards - from the history of the prison and its reforms to what it’s like to be a regular family visitor at the prison.
In a recent episode, they covered the release experience. As you can imagine, getting released from prison can be really challenging. There are special transitional programs, but not everyone qualifies. Some folks leave jail with a little money to start over and perhaps a support system like a mother or an uncle, but others emerge with literally nothing. Jobs on the outside, of course, are hard to come by. Although many states have quote unquote banned the box - the line on a job application that requires folks to state if they have been convicted of a felony - almost every employer will notice the lengthy employment gap on a persons resume and ask about it.
In San Francisco California, in a funky stretch of town just south of downtown near market street is Frena Bakery. The Israeli owner of the bakery, Isaac Yosef, bakes traditional Israeli delicacies, both savory and sweet (forgive me for discussing food on yom kippur) like the cheese and potato filled fillo pastries called borekas, or the Israeli-version of the calzone, the fluffy pita stuffed sambussak, in addition to the more well-known treats like chocolate rugelach and pillowy soft fresh pita bread and of course, challah. When he started it, it was just your average kosher bakery, certified by the Vaad of Kashrut of Northern California.
Then one day, in walked Carlos Flores. Flores had just been released from San Quentin after 21 years in prison. At the age of 18, he was the lookout for a friend in a robbery gone wrong. The friend held up the clerk at gunpoint, and during the robbery, the gun went off, killing the clerk. Carlos was sentenced to 15 to life. While in prison, he read, a lot. He taught himself math. He took college classes. And he taught himself Hebrew. And that’s where the bakery comes in. Shortly after his release, looking for a job, he heard about the bakery and that the owner spoke Hebrew. Carlos went in cold -he’d never worked in a bakery in his life, had never really held any job outside of prison. Isaac interviewed him and hired him on the spot.
Carlos was a great employee, and a few months later, when another formerly incarcerated San Quentin resident was released, another fellow with a long sentence for a serious crime, he asked if there was a job at the bakery for him. Isaac hired him too. And so it went and so it went, until the bakery, at the time of the podcast, had hired a sum total of 25 formerly incarcerated individuals. They went from crime and punishment, to challah and pizza rolls. The bakery has so many formerly incarcerated individuals, men and women, working there - most of whom were locked up on long prison sentences - that it has earned the nickname ‘the Lifer Bakery’.
One of the more incredible things about this story is that Frena Bakery is not Beit Teshuvah - the addiction recovery program I mentioned earlier. Beit Teshuvah is a social services agency that was created to help reintegrate struggling folks back into society. Frena Bakery is a bakery. It wasn’t created to solve social ills or to repair the world. It was created to make tasty borekas and turn a profit. And yet - on the way to that goal, they decided to become San Francisco’s bakery of second chances. Why?
The owner, Isaac, explained it in a way that I think we all can understand. He said this:
Isaac: Why? First of all, we as Jews... we have a kosher bakery... kosher, not just the food, kosher needs to be everything: The way you conduct business, the way you treat your workers. Kosher is a way of life. Just, you know... eating kosher food and be a bad person. It's everything. So, the first fundamental rule in Judaism is that everybody deserves a second chance. It doesn't matter what you did. If you regret and you change
your ways, you deserve a better chance, a second chance, you know? You can't judge people for things they did when they were young. Or they were heat of the moment and nobody stopped them. If nobody stopped us, most of us would go to jail, too. You know? Many times.
Isaac Yosef here sums up the dual nature of Yom Kippur better and more succinctly than anything. If you regret and you change your ways, you deserve a better chance, a second chance, you know? An ex-con spends years - decades even - analyzing the deeds that got them the way they were. Godwilling, the incarceration experience is also an opportunity for teshuvah - repentance, return, change . Corrections AND rehabilitation. Carlos decided to get up every morning at 4 am and combine flower and water and yeast, and push and pull and beat and twist it into shape. To work hard and make something out of raw potential and turn it into something wonderful. And obviously here, I’m not just taking about turning flower into bread, but also Carlos’ twist in changing from a dumb wayward kid that did an awful thing into a hard working upstanding human.
That’s half of the dual nature of Yom Kippur. Carlos’ half. The story of repentance and change.
The other half is Isaac’s story. The story of a man who sees another human and says ‘I will give you a chance.’
Because really, all of us own metaphorical bakeries in our lives. There are folks that have wronged us - maybe once, maybe more than once. There are folks that we pre-judge or evaluate to be unworthy of our time, of our love, of our forgiveness. Yom Kippur is a dual time for us - a time for us to reevaluate our deeds and ask forgiveness for our wrongdoings, but also a time to reevaluate the deeds of others and be forgiving. To be a little more tolerant. To have a little more hesed - lovingkindness - as I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah. We do this interpersonally with the people we love - we forgive our wives and our husbands; our children and our parents; our neighbors and our co-workers. But we must also remember that Yom Kippur is the holiday of second-chances. It is our time to ask for a second chance from each other and from God, but also a time to give second chances to those we have judged for ill.
It is a time to be open minded and broad thinking.
A time for new starts and clean slates.
A time for corrections and rehabilitation.
A time for reevaluation and change.
A time for forgiveness and openmindedness.
A time for Carlos and a time for Isaac.
A time for ex-cons, and a time for bakers.
Shanah tovah and Gmar chatimah tovah - a happy new year and good and just sealing in the book of life for the year 5782.