D’Var Torah: Jewish learning in Wisconsin correctional facilities – and repentance | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

D’Var Torah: Jewish learning in Wisconsin correctional facilities – and repentance  


The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous is the “Bible” for those recovering from alcohol addictions. Additionally, since 1939 it has been edited repeatedly to cover the full gamut of drug and gambling addictions.

The “BB,” as we’ll call it, contains 12 steps necessary for the person’s cessation from their addiction.  In fact, it really covers the entire application of repentance.  For the purpose of this article, we will look at what I consider, the three most important aspects of the 12-step program, admitting we are powerless to control our addiction, reporting to a higher authority (G-d) and making amends.  Remarkably, it’s the same responsibility that the great Spanish sage, the Rambam – Maimonides – demands in his book

When I had the merit to represent the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis as the Jewish representative to the Religious Practices Advisory Committee for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, I was privileged to travel through Wisconsin and meet with different inmates in state correctional facilities. It was through these experiences that I discovered firsthand what was meant by repentance.  Murderers, thieves, rapists – you name it, I met and taught them.  The majority of the ones I had the pleasure to work with were dedicated repenters, following in the footsteps of the teaching of the Rambam, Maimonides!  They accepted G-d, repented their acts, and while it was virtually impossible to make personal amends, they prayed daily for forgiveness.

The most enduring experiences I saw was the amount of time the inmates spent studying.  Many were self-taught Hebrew readers, Talmudic scholars and very well versed in Tanakh.  Some prayed each day, wore tefillin, and fasted on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.  Over 50 inmates fasted on Yom Kippur 2014!  It’s mind blowing on how these “criminals” had a greater commitment to Judaism than many of us.  Yes, they have infinitely more time than we do, but we control our own schedules; we can do better. It takes literally five minutes to put on tefillin, and say the “shema,” the prayer that reaffirms our commitment to G-d. This is a bare minimum effort, but it’s guaranteed to make your day more fulfilling.

While my wife and family were concerned about my safety at the institutions, I really never felt safer.  I knew these inmates had my back.  I also know that they prayed for my family and cared about each other’s plight.  This, even when their own problems were impossible to bear.  They all grew to become part of my extended family.

This year during the High Holiday season, let’s find it in our hearts to dedicate our own lives to the “Big Book” of the Torah.  Working to follow every precept of the Torah, large and small, understandable and the illogical.  Let’s find the strength to surrender our lives to G-d, accept our weaknesses, rededicate our lives to our synagogue, maintain the economies of our schools and find kindness for each other.  This is true tikkun olom.  May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Mitchell R. Cohen, formerly of Milwaukee, served the state of Wisconsin’s Jewish inmates as their volunteer chaplain for three years, while concurrently practicing as a psychotherapist in Glendale.  He is now on the faculty at the Hebrew Theological College’s Fasman Yeshiva in Skokie Ill., where he teaches Talmud, Hebrew, psychology and sociology.