It was a gorgeous December day in Florida. Driving from Miami to Key West, we stopped to visit my partner’s cousins in their boutique along the highway. As we caught up on the last several years of our lives, my cell phone rang.
“Is this Rabbi Nafshi?”
“This is Reverend Estelle from the State Penitentiary for Women in New Jersey. I received your letter. I have some Jewish inmates who would be interested in having you visit.”
“I’m on vacation in Florida. Can I call you next week when I’m back?”
“Sure, I look forward to hearing from you.”
After I hung up, my heart started pounding. State Penitentiary? Inmates? Visit them? What had I been thinking?
I had started a job two months earlier as the Jewish chaplain in a three-county area. I sent letters to the hospitals, nursing homes, organizations for the disabled, psychiatric facilities, county jails, and state prisons letting them know that I was available to provide pastoral counseling for their Jewish patients, residents, clients, and inmates. Calls had been coming in, but this was the first from a prison.
I tried to put the call out of my mind to enjoy our vacation, and mostly I succeeded. But every so often, I considered what awaited me when we returned home. How would I react when learned of their crimes? Would I be alone with them? Would I feel safe? My mind raced. My thoughts were neither linear nor logical. My stomach twisted and turned. I wished that Reverend Estelle had never called. And I was thrilled that she had so that I would be forced to move out of my comfort zone.
I met Reverend Estelle after we returned home. She escorted me into the prison. “You’re on ‘Grounds,’” she told me. “This is the minimum security area. Most of the women here have relative freedom to come and go as they please.” I saw women dressed in heavy khaki winter coats walking among the buildings, chatting with each other, and working to remove snow from the roads and sidewalks.
We entered a building and settled into a small conference room. “So what made you send that letter?” she asked me. “Well, as I began this job, I decided to reach out to the must vulnerable and most alone in our community. I wanted them to know that the Jewish world had not forgotten them.”
“Have you done prison work before?”
“I’ve been doing it a few years. It’s different, but really rewarding. I’m glad you wrote.”
“On Grounds, women don’t stay too long – a couple of months or years. A few are Jewish but they are fairly isolated from each other and their religion. Some come to me for counseling, but I can only do so much. So you’ll be a great asset to them. Up in Max (maximum security), we have three inmates who are Jewish. A Chabad rabbi visits them. He teaches a Bible class. And he provides information about the Jewish holidays. These women have a hard time relating to him, and have asked me to find a more liberal rabbi to meet with them. Your letter was a true gift. They want someone to provide counseling. And they are hoping to be able to celebrate the Sabbath together.”
I agreed to visit the prison three times a month: Once to offer pastoral counseling on Grounds, once to offer pastoral counseling in Max, and once to celebrate Shabbat. It turned out to be the most rewarding work I have ever done as a rabbi.
All three women in Max had been convicted of murder. Two had been in prison for over twenty years. They, along with the women on Grounds, taught me about teshuvah, repentance, in ways I had never encountered before. They taught me about vulnerability and fear, and about love. They taught me about loyalty and loneliness, and about judgment and sin. I later had opportunities to visit men in prison, but it was the experience with the women that stayed with me.
I visited them for two years, until I moved to another state to begin working as a full-time pulpit rabbi. I am incredibly happy in my new position and wouldn’t trade it for the world. And still, I miss my days as a chaplain to society’s throwaways.
Rabbi Robin Nafshi, firstname.lastname@example.org