Hope behind bars: Rabbi offers female inmates chance at redemption

The women who celebrate Shabbat together on the grounds of a 120-acre prison in Southern California have done some bad things. They have stolen, they have lied, they have used and sold drugs and, in some cases, they have committed murder.

Despite this, they are accepted, embraced and given second and even third chances by Rabbi Moshe Halfon, the Jewish chaplain at the California Institution of Women in Corona.

Rabbi Moshe Halfon

“My job is to help them feel like human beings again, to establish a connection with God and with the Jewish community and to give them the hope that teshuvah [repentance] is possible,” Halfon said.

“In Judaism, even a person who has been convicted of a crime has the ability to do teshuvah,” he added. “In the Talmud, even a man in prison must be visited by the Jewish community.”

Halfon has served since 2006 at the low- to medium-security facility, which houses some 2,600 female inmates.

The rabbi works with about 60 Jewish women, who include those born and raised Jewish, those who learn later in life they have Judaism in their lineage and those who find Judaism once they are inmates. They are white, black, Native American and Hispanic.

He sees women deeply changed when they begin “to think of themselves as holy people who have committed mistakes rather than society’s garbage,” Halfon said.

Halfon spoke June 10 in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women. After his presentation, NCJW members decided that although they can’t easily volunteer (Corona is in Southern California, 400 miles south) they could organize semiannual benefits to raise money to send the women books and toiletries.

“The simple act of sending a cache of shampoo and face moisturizer makes them feel cared about,” he said.

Halfon, ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1986, has worked as a pulpit rabbi, cantor, school principal, Hillel director, day school teacher and psychiatric chaplain in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and California. He’s also a musician and has released an album of Jewish healing chants.

Rabbi Moshe Halfon (left) in 2008 with volunteers and current and former inmates in the sukkah at the California Institution for Women.

He initially applied at CIW because he needed a job, and it sounded like a pretty good one. Four years later, prison chaplaincy “feels like a calling.” He loves that he gets to combine all of his past experience in one post, and believes he’s making a tangible difference.

The women at CIW are Halfon’s congregation. They call themselves “B’not Or,” or “The Women of Light.”

Some are there for only a short time, several years or less. Others are serving long sentences. One, an 84-year-old woman, was given a life sentence 35 years ago and will be in prison until she dies.

The women have been convicted of drug crimes and white-collar crimes, such as gambling or shoplifting, on murder-related charges and parole violations.

Many are former drug addicts, recovering alcoholics or survivors of domestic violence.

“For many of these women, I’m the first man they’ve met who they can trust,” he said.

Women share small cells, about 6 feet by 12 feet, with a bunk bed and toilet. Their days, from 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., are entirely programmed with activities, classes, recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and work, for which they are paid about 36 cents an hour.

“You’re living in a concentration camp mentality, and I have no problem using that analogy,” Halfon said. “It’s a culture of lack.”

Halfon oversees the institution’s kosher food program, which consists of a “pathetic” breakfast of cold cereal (other inmates can have eggs and potatoes), cold cuts for lunch and microwavable kosher meals for dinner.

He approves women for the kosher food program only if they commit to attending classes and Shabbat worship and learning about kashrut, which Halfon teaches in a four-session course. He wants it to be an informed, meaningful choice.

Halfon teaches a weekly Judaism 101 class on Thursday nights. His intention is to “give them the knowledge so they can walk out the door and join a synagogue.”

With volunteers and help from inmates, the rabbi leads Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday morning with his guitar and an original prayerbook he created. He often provides counseling to the inmates on Saturday afternoons.

Halfon has organized a network of volunteers from Southern California synagogues. Some come every week, some three times a year. They teach yoga before services on Saturday mornings while also helping to lead the services, teach about Judaism and organize holiday celebrations.

Halfon said his work is rewarding and enriching, but it is not easy. He has seen several women be paroled only to reoffend and return to CIW.

One case in particular still frustrates him. A Jewish woman came to the prison after her child was taken by Child Protective Services because of her methamphetamine addiction. She made progress. She got clean. She earned parole.

After being released, she was soon sent back to prison, this time pregnant with her second child. She was again paroled, and Halfon and several other rabbis pooled their money to pay for the baby’s brit.

The woman was caught doing drugs again, and the second child, too, was taken by CPS while she was sent back to prison.

“I’m still upset about that one,” Halfon said.

The state pays for the chaplain’s salary and the kosher food his congregants eat. Though he is supposed to be paid an additional $1,000 annually for program and education expenses, Halfon said he rarely receives the money because it is not a high priority in the prison’s budget.

Instead, the rabbi raises money to support his programs and educational materials through private donations.

But he proudly recalls that he got the warden to buy 50 copies of “Judaism for Dummies,” which he uses for his Judaism 101 class.

Last year, Halfon presided over the b’nai mitzvah of two women; two more are scheduled to have a bat mitzvah in December.

Just one month ago, he organized a beit din (Jewish court) of Reform rabbis, who converted four women but without a mikvah, because there isn’t one on site. All four are serving life sentences.

“Before they learned about teshuvah, the only thing many of them knew about the concept of repentance was that sinners can get to heaven through Jesus Christ,” Halfon said. “That these women are learning an ethically based model for self-improvement, which I happen to call Judaism, is changing them.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.