The Prison Rabbi Blog: Origins of a Trouble Maker

I saw myself as an international guru of Jewish mysticism, a congregational rabbi, a psychotherapist, a photographer, a Jewish rock-n-roll singer. So how did I end up working in prisons? Well, it goes back maybe twenty years before; I was living in Berkeley, California after escaping from New York City for the fifteenth time. I hated and loved NYC. I hated the extremist religious Jewish enclaves where so many people knew who I was that is, one of them. Now they condemned me for an endless series of judgments one more absurd than the other. On the other hand I love NYC culture: the art, the music, the restaurants and especially the endless variety of souls. NuYahkers don’t smile at you and then stab you in the back as is the custom in San Francisco — they just stab you up front! I like that honesty.

When I escaped to Oakland, California, I realized the area thrived on alternative everything and anything. I mean, if you wanted to open up a business you had to christen it, “ALTERNATIVE.” Otherwise no one would come and give you business. So I hooked up to an alternative Jewish commune calling themselves  Woodstock West Jewish Alternative Congregation of California. They were quirky beyond belief; every new group therapy technique was implemented into the weekly Sabbath services so that one didn’t just come and pray, one processed …endlessly to the point that a second service was needed to recover from the first.  These upper middle class hippies of WWJC also allowed me to teach Kabbalah publicly and in front of hundreds of people. This was for me, an ecstatic moment. While in Brooklyn, if I mentioned the word Kabbalah I would be attacked for not knowing, studying and mastering the Babylonian Talmud and the entire Code of Jewish Law before even approaching the Kabbalah. In Oakland, the land of the Folkies, Hippies and alternative gender universes, their response was: GIVE IT TO ME BABY! WE WANT MORE! WHAT ELSE YOU GOT… I was having fun even though I did not have a career, barely a job, living on potatoes, coffee, bread and sugar. At WWJAC I was able to present every idea of Kabbalah I ever wanted to experiment with. I introduced Jewish Meditation and Jewish Visualization for the first time and group facilitators gave the go ahead enthusiastically.

Barbara Gipler, a lovely narcissistic, hedonistic, self proclaimed guru who called herself ‘Isis is the nicest’; was one of the rabble rousers of WWJAC.

One day, ‘Isis is the Nicest’ proclaims during a group processing exercise,       “Why don’t we reach out to Jews in prison?”

I responded, “Sure, how do we get in and out?”

For the next two months one gay guy, one lesbian, one transsexual, one half assed rabbi, one fourth wave therapist and one ex-Jewish Seminary girl from Brooklyn formed a group to practice prison outreach. Finally after our legal information was cleared by the security department, we all journeyed to NORCAL Federal Prison to offer High Holiday Services. It was electrifying to be there and sing in front of Federal criminals and Jews no less! The guards were civil and respectful. The inmate’s faces were filled with joy.

At the time, 1985, this prison was co-ed. I found out many years later that the co-ed program was discontinued because of the surge of pregnancies at the prison. After completing the services we socialized with the inmates. I met a woman named Queenie, who was caught spying for the USSR and sent to prison for twenty years. She was a lover of the King of Pot Dick Schanda. And you may ask: how were they able to be lovers in prison!? They were assigned to be the porters of their units. Even though male and female housing units were separate the porters worked together. For some reason they shared the same supply closet and when they went there to bring out their mops and cleaning supplies, they performed quickies on each other. They had mastered having sex-in-one-minute. I surmise this must be some kind of world record. If the Warden only knew what was going on in his prison..

Before I left, Dick, the King of Pot, approached me and requested an interview.

I said, “Sure, how can I help you?”

For some reason he began telling me his epic disaster of a story. Dick came from a fine Jewish family in Greater Boston. His father had a small but respectable synagogue in the outskirts of Boston called Watertown. When his father died he continued being the rabbi by default for years. The congregation slowly died or moved to Miami. He decided to go to Brandeis University to get a PHD as an alternative to congregation duties. It so happened that the president of the Synagogue was never in town and his wife Joya Jewison began to put out overtures of friendliness.

She confided in Rabbi David Schanda.

She said casually, “Come over to my house; I hear that you want to get a PHD at Brandeis. I have a lot of connections there. Come over and we’ll shmooz.” He went over one night. She served him 18 year old MaCallan single malt scotch and before you know it they were sleeping together. The husband was out of town every week except on weekends; the set up was perfect. This went on for a year.           After a year the husband found out. He was infuriated and informed the rabbi that he was going to announce it to the press: the respectable Rabbi David Schanda, an orthodox rabbi, the heir to revered Rabbi Dr. Naftali Schanda was an adulterer. If the word got out Rabbi David was going to be humiliated throughout the town and worse-throughout Greater Boston. He resigned his position and moved out to Northern California where he continued his studies at University of California at Berkeley.

A lightening bolt hit him and he realized: suddenly he had no financial support! His beloved father’s congregation was the institution that kept him afloat and once that opportunity fizzled he was in a poor financial situation. This old Synagogue had kept him alive. He had some savings but life in Northern California was expensive. He decided, after analyzing the situation, the best way to make money without being dependent on any Jewish organization was to cultivate marijuana and sell it.

Before you know it, David, now going by Dick, created one of the finest marijuana networks catering to middle and upper middle class liberal Jews and their Episcopalian and Buddhist friends. He became known as the King of Pot. For years he lived a most indulgent lifestyle. Sensuous, hippy, earth mother, deadhead soul sisters were attracted to him like bees to honey, and he accumulated coastal property where he exported skunk and dawg herb [as marijuana is referred to by aficionados] by using a sophisticated networks of high-powered boats that delivered potent weed to secret coves throughout the coastal areas of California, Oregon and Washington.

The State cops and Federal narcotics agents were after him for years but his gemorra kop [his Talmudic trained brain] kept him ahead of every move against him.

I asked Dick, “So how did you blow it?”

“You want to know that too?” He looked at me with a clownish grin; his sky blue eyes glittered with inner knowledge.

“All right I’ll tell you. This is confidential, right?”

“Off course, I’m just a rabbi visiting a Jewish brother.”

“OK.. Here’s the story. Everything was going my way, I had outwitted every cop in the state. However; I could not outwit my very own self. I became overly confident until I became irresponsible in the way I handled my business. I lived up in Mendocino County on the rugged Pacific coast. I had a compound where all my goods were processed and for some reason, which I cannot comprehend to this very day, I began collecting classic cars.

I remembered my dad owned a 57’ Chevy Bel Air. My entire childhood was embodied in riding in this model with my dad the Rabbi. I had to buy that classic. I had to own a bright yellow 1968 Camaro. I needed to own a 1967 bright red Mustang. I bought a  Silver Corvette Sting Ray for a 100,000 bucks. Eventually, I had an entire museum of classic American cars strewn all over my compound. And the cops took notice. My indulgence destroyed me. They could not understand how such expensive cars ended up in the middle of the poorer white trash neighborhoods of Mendocino County. This was before the boutique-ification of Mendocino. One morning, they raided and the King of Pot was no more. No more King and no more pot- just the pissing pot in my cell.”

I looked at him; he had the look of an adolescent boy with mischievous blue eyes, rimless glasses. He had no remorse at all. If he was released from prison he would do the same crime all over again. I wondered about the goals of correctional incarceration. Did it really include rehabilitation or was the notion of ‘rehabilitation’ lip service to liberal politicians? Or was the Department of Corrections truly and only the Department of Retribution? It was difficult to analyze the situation since there were rehabilitation programs throughout the Department. Nevertheless, the entire prison culture worked against rehabilitation.

As I was leaving I asked Dick the former King of Pot did he need any religious books, perhaps I could purchase some books for his use and for the other inmates. He whispered in my ear. “I’m good brother, I’ve smuggled in over five hundred books under my bed!” He winked at me as I walked through the checkpoint.

At that moment I knew fate was drawing me to do prison work. I knew the characters I would meet would change my life forever. I need to be clear about where I came from and what transpired when I began working to rehabilitate African American, Mexican and some Jewish criminals in the California Penitentiary System known as the DCR [Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation].

I had a pretty idyllic childhood in pre-big boom Toronto, Canada. I clearly remember no sidewalks in residential areas. We moved to Brooklyn, NY so that my mother could be near her parents who ran a general goods store at the outskirts of Sunrise Park a neighborhood originally consisting of Swedish, German, Italian and Irish immigrants. When we moved to Sunrise Park [called that because it was adjacent to Sunset Park] I clearly recalled by the early sixties there was an influx of Puerto Ricans on the edge of this neighborhood now flourishing with Hungarian and Polish Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. There was bound to be trouble.

I remember being attacked as an elementary school student walking through neighborhoods on the northeastern borders of Sunrise Park; like in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, where Italian kids would throw eggs at the Jewish kids during Halloween; or when walking to my grandfathers, “Steiner’s General Store and Grocery,” I would be attacked by Puerto Rican kids in groups of 7, 8, 9; a veritable swarm of junior vultures.

I developed the very Brooklyn Jewish idea that Goyim meant anyone who attacks Jews, and that could mean anywhere, by anyone, at anytime. My Dad, a rabbi, who was a religious administrator for an ultra orthodox Jewish [frum] educational institution, was the son of Hungarian-Rumanian Jews who came to America before WWII. He grew up knowing about Anti- Semitism in Hungary through my grandmother (my father’s mother). The grandfather I grew up with was actually my father’s stepfather. My real grandfather died of a kidney disease at the age of fifty or so. I always wondered if he was an alcoholic but could never bring myself to ask my father about the subject. My step grandfather ( the gentle man my grandmother married after WWII) never talked about growing up in Transylvania, an amorphous ever moving border (depending on conquering armies) of Hungary and Romania.

My grandmother was always cooking and baking; being a ferocious little dynamo of a woman, sleeping 2-3 hours a night. She was totally present all the time. No-there was never any past, the present was too crucial, in her eyes. My step grandfather, who I was endeared to, was a Holocaust survivor of the great resort Auschwitz, as he would sardonically note with not a smile on his face. He came to America with his two sons. They survived the death camps when they were 15 and 16 respectively. I cannot fathom how they survived. I perceived that the attitudes in my family and in the larger Jewish community growing up in the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century, was, as follows: the more Nazis were destroyed and obliterated (whatever ethnic group they came from) – was good for the world. Law and order in America meant the persecution of Nazis. I observed my dad for many years expressing the idea: any Goy was a potential Nazi. I lived in a perilous universe.

Ethnic Brooklyn could turn into a pogrom at any moment. I experienced this and was secretly training to defend myself with ferocious means towards any Goy-Nazi-Italiano-Porturrican-Irish-Schvartzes… I was ready for them. The Jewish Defense League was forming. Most Jews in Brooklyn welcomed its founder Meir Kahane. I heard him speak many times and the message was not necessarily racism, rather it was about Jews defending themselves wherever they were …and not depending upon the police. Wow! I thought this was great! Jews are not going to be massacred without a fight. As a teenager I was on the physically small side and on many occasions bore the brunt of Brooklyn bullies. I learnt how to defend myself or run away- lightning fast . I was a great runner in the one hundred yard dash and the mile run and my motivation was to be able to escape from whosoever wished to harm me as a Jew.

This ability to run like a speed freak was dedicated to the premise that if you couldn’t massacre the other, escape- in order not to be massacred. I was indoctrinated to mistrust the non Jewish world, to look at the police as defenders of the Jews sometimes at their political convenience.

When I began my journey in prison work I walked into a zone that was never talked about, discussed or dialogued about in the Jewish circles I frequented. I walked into the realm of Jewish criminals. Many people outside of prison ask me: What kind of crimes do Jews commit? And they comment as they continue talking, “white collar crimes -right?” And when I tell them there are also Jewish killers, Jewish rapists, Jew pedophiles; they look at me in disbelief, stunned, turning the conversation into a lighthearted joke. I turn the conversation back to the real issue: there are real bad Jewish boys in prisons. They become quiet and listen with fascination. Then I raise the issue, “Would you contribute religious books for these Jewish inmates who need your support?” The response is, “Why don’t you go to the Jewish Federation of BLA BLA BLA?” I try to tell them that Jewish organizations are not interested in Jews in prison even though there is a real need and moral obligation to do so.

What I really wish to convey is: how did I transform myself, in profound ways, from a very devout, very religious background to an activist prison rabbi Jewish chaplain helping Jews of all persuasions, races, ethnic groups and all criminal varieties? The simple answer is: That’s my job! The longer response is to describe a series of anecdotes whereby I, the chaplain see the depths of what is going on in the prisons with these Jews.

What do I see? I see the phenomenon of a noticeable amount of American blacks and some Hispanics, Mexican or otherwise, wishing to convert to Judaism. If they can’t convert, they begin practicing Judaism in these correctional labyrinths despite the obstacles. To see the expression of radical support of Israel from correctional officers who are devout Christians [who show more support for Israel than many Jews I meet in Northern California]. I see wisdom emerge from souls in the dark bowls of humanity, stuck in limbo for years to life; to show how men survive in spirit in harsh cultures; to watch how some of these dangerous human beings redeem themselves despite themselves.

In 2006 I began my tenure as a state chaplain. This was the first time in ten years that a Jewish chaplain was making regular visits to Happy Valley State Prison. Until the moment I was hired as a Jewish Chaplain, the only regular event happened two times a year, on Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish New Year and Passover. Each inmate religious group in the prison were allowed to celebrate and create, two religious banquets a year. The Jews picked the above. The Christians picked Christmas and Easter. The Muslims picked: Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr. The Native Americans, auspicious seasonal celebrations. Their weekly sweat lodges were intense in themselves whenever they were able to convince the prison authorities to allow it to happen.

Passover and Rosh Hashana banquets were the only events that happened for the Jewish inmates (and their friends).

When I began my tenure as Jewish Chaplain my new Jewish correctional community didn’t know how to respond to my question, “Besides the basic  two banquets a year- what kind religious services do you want from me?”

An African American of slight appearance around five foot nine wearing blue denim standard, with tortoise shell glasses framing his studious, bright and cheerful face, came over to me after the first meeting and said,

“I’m Bristol.  Jeremy Bristol and I am pushing real hard to get Jewish services going. Do you know how many times the Jews here have tried to get services going and the Warden and his goon squad stopped everything from happening. I am happy you’re here and I am ready to fight to get things going here.”

“Excuse me.” I ask innocently, “Are you Jewish?”

“Rabbi- I am your best friend here at Happy Valley. I have fought for Jews to have services for the past three years and the prison authorities created endless obstructions to organize in this hell hole.”

I ask him again, “Are you Jewish?”

“No, I am not. But I love my Jewish brothers. I’m from LA and I grew up with a lot of Jewish friends who fought for me when I ran into trouble, which was quite frequently and now it’s my time to repay the deed brother rabbi!”

I look at him astonished and pleasantly surprised that there were individuals beside  Jewish inmates that were interested in having Jewish services. Bristol walked up to me and in his unique friendly in- your- face- fashion, conveyed to me all the lawsuits he had activated and initiated against the Department of Corrections for not allowing the Jews to hold services while the Catholics and Protestant inmates had two very large chapels in the prison with religious services almost every day of the week. I was perturbed and thought: what kind of mishigas is this? A black dude from LA- the only defender of the Jews? And why the prejudice against Jewish inmates?

At that moment I accepted the reality and the reality was, this dude brother Bristol, at the time when I began my chaplaincy tenure he was truly the only defender of the Jews in this state prison. His in-house appeals to the higher ups in the prison administration helped me and dozens of Jews begin to get organized and schedule ongoing religious programs for the Jewish population.

Bristol was released from prison soon thereafter and relocated to sunny Ventura County where he thought he would have a better chance to begin anew. He confided in me that he was going to become a member of the local Reform Jewish Congregation in Ventura, figuring these liberal Jews would be the best religious and financial option for a guy of his circumstance and condition. And then Bristol disappeared. I never heard from him again. Yet because of his efforts I was able to initiate full religious programs.

These days up to a hundred inmates of every race, creed and color show up to services and around half of them are Jewish on some level and I don’t wish to get into a discussion of who is a Jew, by which denomination etc; an endless discussion about interdenominational positionalism which is futile and a waste of time when one is working in a prison culture. I accept every one’s notion of their Jewishness. If they show up to Jewish services they are welcomed with open arms.

I saw that as long as I was going to serve as a Jewish Chaplain [or as the administration refers to me -the JEWISH RABBI; as if there is a CATHOLIC RABBI, PROTESTANT RABBI, MUSLIM RABBI, WICCAN RABBI AND NATIVE AMERICAN RABBI.] I had to see anyone who showed up at Jewish services as identifying with Judaism on some level and I was legally required to serve them.

Is this what I signed up for? I asked myself as I drove back to the motel five miles away. The winds were doing their afternoon hoots and howls in the Great Salad Bowl Valley.  As I drove past by fields of romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, broccoli and kale I saw lines of ten to twenty Porto Potties lined up on the edge of the fields. It was harvest time in the salad bowl capital of the US of A, and I had enough nonsense at Happy Valley State Prison. I knew I would meet Jews I never thought existed. Who knows, perhaps the Ten Lost Tribes were hiding out here in this fertile and enigmatically, desolate region strewn with tens of thousands of convicts in State prisons?

Selection from: The Prison Rabbi – a work of fiction

About the Author
Eliahu J. Klein is a veteran Jewish chaplain in California State prisons working and helping hundreds of Jews to reconnect with their roots; advocating for their religious rights and organizing interfaith programs in prison environments with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Native American and Buddhists religious leaders. He has created Matir: An Outreach Organization for Jews in Prisons and Hosptals. Eliahu Klein is the author of: A Mystical Haggadah : Teachings Meditations and Stories on Passover