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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)

But Mussar is about more than class discussions. It’s a guidance system involving direction and insight into human life collected into texts over generations. Through various methods, including study, contemplation, and daily journaling, practice can turn into discipline, which can be transformative, even if it takes a lifetime. Over the last decade, thanks to the web and new books in English written with the less observant in mind, Mussar has gained popularity among non-Orthodox Jews, including individuals and synagogue groups across North America. In part, that’s because at its core, Mussar focuses on real life and doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of ritual or Hebrew language. Recently, the Union for Reform Judaism approached the Mussar Institute to plan joint programming.

At one class, Lester and the women talked about the sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not murder. A discussion followed on how people murder each other’s spirit by words and actions. That was followed by reading Everyday Holiness, exploring the trait of silence. And that brought the women to talking about lashon ha’ra, or gossip—toxic in prison—including some 30 weeks on the rules of lashon ha’ra. One woman suggested an art project making pins, which the women called “the Mouth Project,” and which authorities approved. It featured the famous Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album logo of a mouth and tongue with six words printed underneath: “No Loshon Hora” (using the Yiddish spelling) and “Guard Your Tongue.” Soon, half of Corona’s prisoners, about 900 women, were wearing them, Jewish and non-Jewish. The warden asked for one, as did several guards.

“The women tell me they can’t imagine what their lives would be like without the class,” Lester said, adding that the discussions often run deep. At her first visit on Tisha B’Av, as they read Lamentations, the women sobbed. Lester, moved to tears, looked around, and saw women with tattoos, faces that looked sad, hard, and hopeless.

One of them was Clubine, the battered woman who had killed her husband. By Halfon and Lester’s account, Clubine was “successful” in prison, starting a support group two decades ago called Convicted Women Against Abuse. Paroled four years ago, Clubine, 51, of San Jacinto, speaks across the nation and heads a nonprofit group called Every 9 Seconds committed to preventing domestic violence.

But Lester’s visits and the Mussar class helped re-kindle what Clubine says was her “burnt-out” faith and hope. “I wouldn’t have survived without it. I know, I wouldn’t have,” Clubine said. “I couldn’t understand how there could be a God and let this happen to me. Nobody wanted to know the truth.” In addition to the classes, Lester sat with Clubine, prayed with her, soul-searched with her, and cultivated the trait of silence so Clubine could hear that still, small voice: “We talked about what I should do when I got out,” said Clubine, “and how I could fight for other victims so they don’t have to live the nightmares I lived.”

Lester also touched Imboden, 53, of Sunnyvale, who was paroled last February. She stole credit cards and forged checks to fund her drug and alcohol addiction, breaking into clients’ houses she cleaned, unlocking their front doors, turning off and on their security systems before and after she stole from them. With Lester, she worked on the trait of trust, but other inner traits, too—including silence, after a falling out with prison friends triggered by gossip. “Instead of feeling better by gossiping, it backfired and I felt so hurt and betrayed I just stayed in my cell all the time except for work assignments for nearly a year,” Imboden said. With Lester’s help, Imboden saw how her emotions ruled her life. Working on humility and courage, Imboden says she faced her fears and asked for help “from God and Shayna.”

“I didn’t want to live that way anymore, so miserable and unhappy,” said Imboden. “I realized I wasn’t there for [the other inmates]. I was there for God and myself.” Today, a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and at synagogue services in Palo Alto, she’s working on honor, too, as caregiver for her ailing father, someone she says she dishonored growing up.

A 56-year-old woman who simply called herself Suzanne (she doesn’t want to give her real name, embarrassed to expose her past to co-workers) was jailed for a year for fraud, stealing co-workers’ Social Security numbers from their time cards and then taking out false loans from an online company to pay for her prescription-drug habit. She went to Lester’s classes, “and it just blew me away, like being in a room with a three-watt light bulb that gets brighter and brighter,” she said from her Los Angeles home. Her big take-away was “staring truth in the face,” she said, when she realized that her addiction coupled with stealing meant she was constantly lying to her best friend, her sister, and her brother. “I’m like a new person,” she said of her clarity now that she’s free of medication, though to get there she “went through terrible, terrible withdrawals.” In April, Suzanne will be off probation, free from the criminal justice system for the first time in eight years, a change that she says fills her with gratitude, another trait she’s cultivating.

Attempts to reach some of the women still behind bars were unsuccessful.

Morinis, who spoke to Lester’s prison class four years ago, recalls being anxious about meeting the prisoners. As he connected to their eager eyes, he says, he realized the women were no different from any other group he addresses. “Maybe [they were] people who had made a mistake or had extraordinary tough lives or had been misled by the company they kept or their pain or their yetzer ha’ra,” their evil inclination. But, he says, none of it was outside the realm of life and what the Mussar masters taught about life: “It wasn’t much of a stretch to look out and imagine that this was a Sisterhood group from any temple in any city in North America.”


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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

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