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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

Leonard Felson
February 08, 2013
Illlustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock
Illlustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock
Illlustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock
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.


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.

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.”

Leonard Felson has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Reader’s Digest, The Jerusalem Report, and other publications.