Magazine article American Jails

The Prisoner Who Became a King

Magazine article American Jails

The Prisoner Who Became a King

Article excerpt

The late Nelson Mandela once said, "In my country we go to prison first and then become president."

Working in a prison with people who want to change, who want to better themselves, and who want a new life is inspiring. I never thought that "inspiring" would be an adjec- tive I would use in describing my work at a prison, but lately I have found myself thinking about my conversations with prisoners in terms of what they are giving to me more than what I am giving to them.

I have a contract with the Navy to offer Jewish chaplaincy sendees to the Navy Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Virginia. This is my first experience working in a prison of any type and my expectations certainly were not the reality; they were low and I did not think that the interac- tions were necessarily going to be inspiring, educational, meaningful, or otherwise very useful in the long run. What I have found is that not only do the prisoners want to talk and leam, but they give me much to contemplate as well.

I recently shared with the prisoners that there is an ancient Jewish custom to bless our chil- dren every week on the Sabbath eve. The words we use for this blessing are that our children should be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph. The reason we use these two names is because of what they had to go through to stay true to their deepest, Jewish selves. The trials they endured to remain Hebrews in a society like ancient Egypt was amazing, and we hope our children have simi- lar strength when tested. A pris- oner came up to me after this talk and asked me a profound question: "When you bless your children, do you ask for a per- sonal blessing that you should be like Joseph, their father?" This question shocked me and forced me to rethink how I bless my children every Sabbath eve. He inspired me to think not only about what I want for my children, but to pray for myself as a father as well. …

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