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Spiritual Healing Behind Bars

A Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar offers hope and inner peace for women in an unlikely place: prison

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(Illlustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock)

Brenda Clubine suffered repeated beatings from her husband until one day, threatened in a locked hotel room, she smashed him over the head with a wine bottle and killed him. She served 26 years in prison for second-degree murder. Annette Imboden started drinking bourbon daily at age 12, adding heroin and cocaine to a lifelong addiction, eventually stealing credit cards and forging checks to fund her habit. She served 18 years before being paroled last year.

Clubine met Imboden while they were doing time at the California Institution of Women in Corona, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. There, the two women, both Jews, met another woman who would change their lives: Shayna Lester, a volunteer Jewish prison chaplain, who began visiting, influencing them in ways they never could have imagined.

Lester offered classes on Torah, explored the Ten Commandments from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and counseled them. But the most unorthodox tool she brought to the prison was Mussar, a spiritual practice that focuses on character traits like truthfulness, generosity, patience, and humility in an effort to help people overcome inner obstacles. Based on Jewish practices dating back more than a thousand years, it grew in popularity in 19th-century Lithuania under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Mussar movement. Today, though, despite a nascent revival among Jews of all stripes, Mussar is barely known outside the Orthodox yeshiva world.

Yet Mussar has proven to be a powerful tool for a group of female prisoners, allowing them to see where, when, or how they stumble in everyday life, even in prison. That awareness can alter their behavior, helping to bring them peace, or at least greater vigilance about the choices they make.

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After decades as a psychotherapist, Lester started searching for meaningful volunteer work about 20 years ago, praying to find “the right fit.” She became a Jewish spiritual director, a kind of counselor to help people experience the divine in their lives. She was an ordained interfaith minister and received ordination as a “reverend gabbai” from Jewish Renewal leader Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

When Lester heard that the prison in Corona had hired her friend Rabbi Moshe Halfon of Long Beach as Jewish chaplain, she knew God had answered her prayers. She made her first trip to the prison—her first trip to any prison, in fact—six years ago, trembling with fear. Working with Halfon, she eventually became the prison’s lead volunteer chaplain, serving the spiritual needs of about 30 to 50 Jewish women and “Jewish wannabes,” as Halfon put it, at any given time. These days, she drives to Corona, 120 miles round trip from her home in Santa Monica, every week. The seventy-something Lester (she demurred when asked her exact age) sees women who have committed “every type of crime imaginable,” she said, from fraud to theft to murder. Some newcomers are as young as their twenties, while others have served more than 30 years behind bars with little chance of parole.

It wasn’t long after talking with them about the Commandments that Lester turned to Mussar, believing it would give the women an opportunity to examine their character traits from a spiritual perspective. Many had been in group therapy for years, and she thought Mussar might offer a different approach to healing—one that had long been seen as appropriate for women; in the 19th century, Mussar rabbis taught that it was incumbent on both genders to study Mussar daily.

The Jewish women Lester saw had never heard of Mussar—which is why Lester calls the class by a more general name, Jewish Ethics—but where better to practice it, she thought. At its core, Mussar is about working on obstacles in one’s life. Yet, it’s more than self-help, she told them. They listened in the prison chapel, the size of a portable classroom; a cross hung on one wall, a Star of David on another. Mussar, she explained, is about fulfilling the Torah’s injunction “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:1).

In a nutshell, Lester’s Mussar is like exercise for the soul. Its goal: to use the challenges of everyday life as a spiritual curriculum in order to strengthen the muscles of your character and help you improve your weak points. “Mussar is a Jewish tradition of personal cultivation and development,” explained Alan Morinis, a leading proponent of a new movement to spread it across North American Jewish communities. “It is not mystical, not ascetic, and not necessarily even religious. There is within each of us a human spirit that is a gift and a challenge, a tool and a potential. Mussar shows us how to engage with life in order to grow and open to evolve into a person who is the living embodiment of our highest individual and personal potential.”

Most of what Lester had learned about Mussar came from books and talks by Morinis, who has spawned a small, though growing, 21st-century movement with programs and classes and other resources through the nonprofit Mussar Institute, which reaches Jews of all denominations across North America. Mussar tools include introspection, text study (modern and ancient), and journaling on character traits, all devoted not so much to work on yourself for the sake of your self, but for a higher purpose, for the sake of holiness or wholeness, Morinis explained. That’s what distinguishes it from psychology or self-help, since Mussar, sometimes translated from Hebrew as “discipline,” posits that because we are made in the image of God, we are all holy souls.

Bringing Mussar into prison is not mainstream, says Rabbi Yaacov Haber, an Orthodox rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, and a Mussar teacher. He cites the work of the late Rabbi Aryeh Levine of Jerusalem, known as Reb Aryeh, the official Jewish prison chaplain during the British Mandate, who had the practice of visiting Jewish prisoners. He created an entire Mussar course for prisoners. And, Haber said, “there are those who follow Reb Aryeh’s example,” including Rabbi Joel Dinnerstien, a certified addiction counselor, now retired in Florida. He spent 12 years working with prisoners in New York’s penal system, mainly in the Hudson Valley, teaching Kabbalah and telling Hasidic stories. Still, “coming in to teach Mussar—it’s rare,” said Dinnerstien, who notes a number of personal-growth prison programs, but none directed at Jews. Neither he nor anyone else interviewed for this article is aware of any other prisons with a Mussar program.

But it’s clearly having a positive effect. When Lester explained that concept to her group, she recalled, the women seemed surprised, given the obviousness of how their circumstances or bad choices had imprisoned them. They wanted to hear more. Lester explained that real life had the potential to block holy light from shining into one’s life and, by extension, into the world. By practicing Mussar, one sees where and when obstructions show up in one’s character. With that information, you can focus on your inner character or soul traits, middot in Hebrew, and find the right balance for countless traits.

Mussar caught on with the women in Corona. Each week, as Lester facilitates, they sit in a circle in the chapel, taking turns reading aloud short sections from Morinis’ book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, or Every Day, Holy Day. Class size is 15 or so, fluctuating during the sessions, depending on the prisoners’ work duties; some show up during their lunch hour for 10 minutes, while others—including five regulars—stay for the full two hours. Discussions follow, often deep and intimate, said Lester, who estimates that she’s spoken about Mussar to more than 200 women over the years.

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marjorie ingall says:

Wonderful piece.

I have done volunteer work in prisons under the Aleph Institute and its for sure one of them most shocking yet rewarding experiences you can ever be a part of.

Plumbline says:

Matthew 11:27-29……..

27 All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. 28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Great story.

Sharon says:

This is a fabulous piece. Thanks for writing about something that I knew so little about and am now so fascinated by.

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Spiritual Healing Behind Bars

A Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar offers hope and inner peace for women in an unlikely place: prison