A panel on the Jewish response to racism in the criminal justice system, at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, kicked off a larger social justice initiative at the Reform synagogue’s religious school.
While panelists disagreed on some of the issues, an overarching theme of the evening was the disparate impact the criminal justice system has, from arrest to sentencing, on people of color.
The Jan. 6 panel discussion — which drew 175 people, including the religious school’s seventh- and eighth-graders — sprang from electives offered in the school that focus on Jewish perspectives on social justice, taught by faculty members Doni Remba and Rabbi Rachel Hertzman. Remba said both plan to spend the rest of the year taking action on issues surrounding the criminal justice system.
“We felt that enabling our students and parents to hear from people who are actively involved in the issues of racism and criminal justice would be a great way to increase their understanding of the issues, and of what Judaism has to say about them,” Remba told NJJN in an e-mail following the event. The initiative, he continued, would also “motivate them to get involved in taking action to address the problems our society is facing — from our local communities here in New Jersey to cities all over the country,”
Activities already planned for the religious school include letter-writing campaigns and lobbying to aid efforts to limit the use of solitary confinement, reform police practices in Newark, and work toward finding ways to provide jobs and housing for people once they are released from prison.
The panel included Paul Fishman, United States attorney for the district of New Jersey (and a Ner Tamid member); Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey; Christopher McNabb, New Jersey organizer for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture; and Miriam Grossman, rabbinic intern at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
“We have a mass incarceration problem in the United States,” Ofer told NJJN. “It is caused by the fact that every part of our criminal justice system is riddled with inequities and constitutional concerns — from policing to arrest to prosecution to sentencing to incarceration to release. These problems have resulted in the United States incarcerating more people, both in absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world, with communities of color bearing the disproportionate brunt of this injustice.
“And in New Jersey, while we have made strides over the years to reduce our prison population, we still incarcerate way too many people.”
Some of the discussion centered on what happens to former prisoners after they are released. Fishman, who has made local “reentry” programs a priority, said, “Forty percent of people coming out of prisons do not have a high school diploma. They can’t get a job. The ability to get a job is the single greatest predictor of success when they get out of prison.”
McNabb pointed to the approach of one organization in Los Angeles. Called Homeboy Industries, it provides employment to former inmates in the cafe and bakery and the solar panel installment service it runs and offers training and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women.
“The big problem is that there is no opportunity in the barrio besides drug dealing,” McNabb said of LA’s poor Hispanic communities. “When you grow up in poverty, that’s what you do.”
Grossman pointed out that her father, Rabbi Daniel Grossman, rabbi emeritus of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, has offered housing and a baby-sitting job to former prisoners.
Fishman noted that a local resident, Charles Rosen, the founder of New Ark Farms in Hunterdon County, offers jobs and training to the formerly incarcerated. He also pointed to the Newark Conservancy, housed in the former Newark home of Oheb Shalom Congregation, now in South Orange, which hires individuals who are reentering the work force after prison.
“We have to convince people that it’s safe to have prisoners who have reentered [society] work for them,” said Fishman.
A question-and-answer session at the end of the discussion was reserved for students, who asked why so many prisoners end up back in jail after their release (“The system failed them,” according to Ofer) and why some sentences are so harsh compared with others (“Sometimes different parents punish similar offenses differently, too,” said Fishman), among many questions.
Ofer described the criminal justice system as “a mill.” “The priority is to catch up, catch up, catch up. Most cases end in plea bargains — unless you have a strong lawyer who will stand up for you.
“But most people don’t,” he said. “They bear the brunt of the punitive part of the system.”