Passover in the Jailhouse Big Tent Story #44

We pushed on and discussed the three images from Rabban Gamaliel. With everything that resonated for them they responded with a kind of vibrational hum from within their chests that moved through the room like working the bass pedals on a Hammond B-3 organ like the thrum of locusts when what they heard settled within them a low hum that went through the room suggesting this pertains to me. Hummmmm. Pesach: We discussed the Rashi that God jumps in jumps out of our story at least that’s the way it feels and the secret of the Pesach is the secret Moses whispered to us before we left on the night of conscious watching leil shimurim: jumping in jumping out in the God’s eye view of things it’s all the same: I am always with you. Hummmmm. Then we turned to the bitter herb maror and the mirror we look into each day a gaze into our personal narrowness I explained the dual form and the hint that what we are looking at is ourselves. In the prison house there isn’t much these guys can do about the external freedom but the inner life is theirs, it belongs to them and whatever it is this year that is no longer large enough to hold them it’s time to leave the narrows and that’s what it means to get free, but these are words and ideas, we say them talky talky and then we go about the year getting free. Hummmmm. We saved the matzah talk for last. What is matzah I opened with, cleaning out the inner puffiness that separates us from God and all we love the most. It’s lean and it pure and it’s the experience of clarity and commitment and it’s the emptying out of ideas and behaviors that no longer serve, the bread of faith by the Zohar the continuum of substance matzah and chametz, that we are what we are becoming — we are becoming what we are — we have it within us to be what we are growing toward, hummmmm. We had come a long way in an hour and at the end of the session the guys took some time to reflect on what we said and make it [more] personal. One guy who knows a lot has studied but without a teacher so he pronounces everything in his own way said the Hebrew word that means “remember.” Yes, that word goes with another word that means to keep or protect: Shamor. To protect what we learn, remember and protect, write it down I said let’s take the next week and write down what we talked about today the implications. Then you’ll remember it better, you will protect it write it down and bring it to the next session. They are wary about writing stuff down it’s a matter of trust I have found. They don’t trust maybe someone will see it who could use it against them but we are getting over that. That’s one of the senses of freedom we discussed: We are getting over what hasn’t worked for us. We are getting free in the ways we can. Hummmmm. These stories I call Big Tent: The next hurdle is to tell the stories. We have been too secret with...

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Shanda* is an Obstacle

Shanda* means shame. Sometimes it serves as a kind of social protection in a community. It did that for a time, around alcoholism and chemical dependency. There comes a time when what I call the shanda* barrier gets in the way, it becomes secrecy and secrecy becomes part of the problem. That happened with drug and alcohol abuse within our community, so over thirty years ago, we took on the charge of breaking the shanda* barrier, which means talk, talk, and more talk. Take the problem above ground, so to speak. We started SLICHA, St. Louis Information Committee and Hotline on Addiction, in 1981 to break the shanda* barrier around addiction. Rose Mass, a social worker in private practice and myself, started meeting in open forums in 1981. We broke the shanda* barrier. SLICHA became Shalvah. Shalvah now meets twice a week, Thursday evenings at Neve Shalom @ 7 PM, and Monday evenings at Central Reform Congregation @ 6:30. Sllcha means forgiveness. Shalvah means serenity. All true. JAMI-StL is Jewish Attention to Mental Illness-Mental Health, something I have been involved with for a long time. My sense is that our community response, Jewish community here in St. Louis, has been inadequate. We are laboring still  under what I call the Shanda* barrier. We broke the shanda* barrier around drug and alcohol abuse beginning in 1981. Now there are two meetings a week here in St. Louis  under the rubric Shalvah, life saving efforts, beautiful and difficult and the real deal, helping individuals enter and sustain recovery. We started by talking about it. Rose Mass and I began in 1981. We rented a room* from the Jewish Community Center that in those days served as an adult day care center. Rose and I met there once a month in an open forum dedicated to spreading the message of the problems around alcohol and drug abuse in our community. For a year, Rose and I gave our talk to each other. Nobody came. We’re doing the right thing Rose, I said, if a few people trickled in, I might think not but NO ONE is coming. I knew this was right. The shanda* barrier was so high in those days. We stuck with it. It took a year. After about a year, people started to come in droves. They haven’t stopped coming since. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard: this meeting is saving my life, well — I’d have more. Now we’re trying to do the same thing about mental illness. It feels to me that it’s the right time for talk, talk, more talk. So I started to do open programs about it, giving over teachings. The next is SUNDAY, JUNE 7, FROM 1 TO 3 PM, AT THE JEWISH FEDERATION KOPOLOW BUILDING. I have prepared some teachings, some talk, and I have invited a panel of individuals to respond who have been there, in one way or another. It’s free and open to anyone. Sometimes people just need to come and listen. Confidentiality, as always, will be carefully respected. Last year I wrote the following pledge, and I took it: The Pledge 1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light. 2) I will be a reminder...

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Shanda: It’s No Shame and We’re Talking All the Time

We held a program on Sunday, November 9, 2014 called Shanda: What We Don’t Talk About. Shanda means shame and we took on three subjects, all intersecting in the souls of many of the people I hang out with; three difficult subjects all associated with the notion of shanda. Shame. My colleague Maharat Rori Picker Neiss opened with a teaching from Brakhot 5b in the Talmud, a well-known teaching about suffering. The question: is your suffering dear to you? No, nothing about it, no way. Still, the rabbis in the story were suffering and what revived them? They reminded each other what they already knew, and they extended a hand, one hand picking up another. Get up, here, take this hand. You know how to do this. We followed with several speakers who trusted the confidentiality of the room and spoke their own stories, from the source, true and sometimes difficult. Living with mental illness, living with addiction, working that, the daily challenge of living with these difficulties, spending time in prison, and I introduced my friend who brought me into the first shanda obstacle we took on: addiction. That was over thirty years ago. When I came to St. Louis in 1981, Rose Mass was a recent graduate of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work where she was given the charge by her teacher, Laura Root, to take to her community what she had learned about breaking the shame barrier around alcoholism and chemical dependency. You need to do this for the Jewish people, Rose heard, and she launched. When I arrived, she said to me, you’re the one I’ve been waiting for. Rose and I started in 1981 with SLICHA, the St. Louis Information Committee and Hotline on Addiction. We met in a room that the JCC rented to us where they held an adult day care program by day. We gave our talk about alcoholism and chemical dependency to each other on the first Thursday of the month. No one came. Rose, I said, we’re doing the right thing. If a few people came, I might say it’s not right. But no one is coming. We’re onto something. We were working the shame barrier so deep we had to sit and deliver our talk to each other for about a year until people started to come. Then they started to come and once they did they haven’t stopped. It’s 2014 as I am writing this, and except for a few years hiatus and a change of name to Shalvah (Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew) we’ve been meeting weekly on Thursday nights in various locations ever since. This was some good news in the days’ activities. A model. I bet a thousand people have passed through our doors in the Shalvah addictions outreach over the years. Not everyone gets well, alcoholism and chemical dependency is tough and life challenging for an entire lifetime, we get a daily reprieve not a cure when we get it, but we have been a part of saving lives. We have also lost lives. We end every meeting by remembering those who are not with us, but we are all confident we are doing the highest work and we are aware that lives hang in the balance. I made this...

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In India I Went to Work

Part 1: Preparation I didn’t really want to go to India. This was my wife’s deal. She has the adventure of travel within her and I go when I am asked and I probably would not have gone if she hadn’t asked. I figured I would go as a tourist, I had no responsibilities really, just to accompany my bride and to be what little help I could be though I could not imagine what I might add. This was not my deal. I’m just along for the ride, so to speak, she had a talk to give here and there and she put the itinerary together. She had been to India before. I’m in but I had nothing to contribute. I didn’t know much about India. I did some reading which is generally my way of seeing the world but I just wanted a sense of where I was going though with each exposure to the literature I found I was drawn more into the story. The Jewish India story was deep but I discovered that there wasn’t much written about it. How could such a story remain relatively untold; about the spice routes, early traders, the synchronous spiritual stories that intersected in what I had always assumed was one of the most spiritually alive places on the planet. But on the Jewish story in India — I took out a few books from the library, ordered a few more on-line – not much. So I read. The classic literature of and about India, some history, some fiction, some excellent travel writing. I learned a lot. But it didn’t prepare me for what I encountered when I actually traveled to India. Part 2: Getting There We landed in Delhi, even the airport smells of something burning. What is that smell? Smoke. Something burning. The theme of this trip: Jewish India. Is that large enough a subject for an itinerary? It’s way large; that is precisely what I am sorting through in thinking out this journey of secret destinations. The footprints in Jewish India are laid deep into the earth. The Jewish story is not about numbers, it’s about history and mythology. The difference with the rest of India nowadays is that the contemporary India story is indeed about numbers, as well as history and mythology. India at 1.2 billion people (by everyone’s understanding a low-ball estimate) is a teeming place of pulsating lifelines. I have read it will become the world’s third greatest economy within twenty or thirty years. If you’ve been to India, you know that estimate is also low-ball. It will happen sooner than that. India is hungry and hard working, an in-your-face capitalist ethic that I would bet on, invest in, hire, etc. Do not undersell India. Part 3: Seeking Jewish India I was told by our guide, an Indian Jew from the Bene Israel community around Mumbai, that there are between 4 and 6,000 Jews presently living in India. By all the travelers I met in a short ten days there, there might be another 4 to 6,000 Jews traveling through India, or spending a time in India, or looking for – what – in India. Israelis, for example, are frequent travelers to India, not only those who trace their roots there, but the...

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One Hundred White Supremicists

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman, Congregation Neve Shalom   I was asked by the director of the treatment program at the prison to speak to a large group of offenders in the treatment program housed there. My directions were simple: When speaking to the offenders, if you could share your thoughts on the benefits of recovery that would be very beneficial. It would last 40 minutes with additional time for questions. I can do that. The institution is in southeast Missouri, formerly the State Hospital for the Insane #4. It opened in 1903. Incarcerated there was Bertha Gifford, from her commitment by the court in Union Missouri of not guilty by reason of insanity in 1928 on three counts of murder. She was incarcerated at Missouri State Hospital #4 and remained there until her death in 1951. Bertha Gifford was referred to as the first female serial killer (she may have been preceded by one other in South Carolina), and was thought to have murdered 17 people over 21 years, most of them children. How do you want me to introduce you? The director asked me. I didn’t really get the question, however you like I said. Do you want me to introduce you as rabbi? Oh yeah, sure, that’s good. I was escorted into a large room where there was approximately two hundred men sitting quietly in rows. I noted that they answered in unison and generally formulaically, yes sir, etc. I was introduced and I gave them a talk about recovery using some stories I have either written or picked up along the way, holy stories, designed to take the listener to somewhere new in their awareness — not too far away from their complacency otherwise they might not come with me – but just beyond their present border of understanding. I saw some heads nodding, about half I would say, in acknowledgement that they were getting what I was saying. I asked a few times if they understood, and they answered with gusto: yes sir! When I finished I was given a nice ovation and I left with the director and returned to his office. We had a few minutes to talk before the next group, which was a group of staff who work with the offenders. During the course of our conversation he told me that one of their greatest problems in this institution is the neo-Nazi white supremacists. I never thought of that. I’ve been visiting this prison for several years but nobody had mentioned anything about that, I kind of bounce around the several parts of the campus blissfully unaware of the larger circles there since I was visiting individuals and sometimes holding classes for small groups of interested offenders. The director gave me an earful: They are violent and incorrigible, these groups, they have a hateful message and they prey upon others in the institution. They are also institution savvy so they get away with a lot and know how to sneak around the system. He told me about their ritualistic tattoos and language of hate, an impenetrable kernel of violence that they try to perpetuate in the system. That’s why he asked how I wanted to be introduced. I felt a chill in my bones and I might have opted to...

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Reluctant Meditation on Seder

Monday, April 14, 2014* Written in a Place of Vulnerability The Haggadah is all about the telling, by Onkelos the teaching, by Maimonides the showing. The story changes and it remains the same. We always have one foot in the personal and one foot in the universal. Each year we squeeze the story for more of what it means — for the individuals for the community the nation the world — for the concentric circles where we all belong. What it means, it’s a good question, but not the only question. Attached to this year’s meaning is the silent heart of grief, which always precedes the what-it-means question. The world: still cracked. Hate corrupts, love repairs. We know this. But the first response is always the silent heart of mourning, which is the silent heart of suffering, which is the opening to the heart of wisdom. Some time into the future we will respond by knowing what to do. For now: open a moment to the silent heart of suffering, still a part of our story, our story a part of the world story. Pray for peace in the grandest and most individual ways: the peace of the near and the peace of the far. And healing for the losses, and some sort of comfort for us all. Amen.   jsg.usa * Frazier Glenn Miller has been charged in relation to three shooting deaths outside Jewish institutions near Kansas City, MO., on April 13,...

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