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 be introduced as simply a professional in the field of addictions, but what the heck, it may have been right in some oblique way to present myself as rabbi before such hatefulness, the kind I may have never encountered this closely in my life before. It seemed important to me to be there fully disclosed, so to speak.

I realized that for both the inmates and for me we were meeting for the first time one of our identified adversaries. All the memos and alerts I have received in my mail over the years – e mails and such warning us about the threat of skinhead and neo-Nazis individuals active in our state — passed before my mind, but never before to my knowledge have I stood before anyone with such thoughts and engaged in dialogue with them.

I am sure it is the same for them. They had probably never met a Jew though Jews figure often in their materials. I had never actually met a skinhead or a neo-Nazi sympathizer to my knowledge and here I was dialoguing with a hundred of them in a room.

I couldn’t think about anything else for days, much less the ride home. Did it make a difference to me? Was it similar for them, I wondered? What did they learn about me?

I was chastened even more by the experience of being in southeastern Missouri when a months later a couple of hours drive away a crazy man with such ideology shot up several Jewish communal living centers. I was having these conversations in places where what lay in the balance was not theoretical; lives hang in the balance in addition to souls. It felt, again, important though also now more complex than before I came.

I had a lot to think about on my way home, a lot to think about since, and I am going back.

1 Comment

  1. Rabbi Edward Zerin

    I am glad that you told your story, and I admire your courage in sharing your feelings. You are not alone. Back in the 1960s my late wife Margie was chair of a committee to hire a professional Ex.Dir. for the city’s Human Rights Commission. The committee proposed a man of color, something that had never happened before in the city. The day she presented the recommendation to the City Council I was standing in the wings proudly listening. Suddenly I noticed two skin-heads standing next to me, presumably waiting for her to leave the Council Chamber. Jim, if you would have asked me in advance what I would do if skin-heads were to show up, I probably would have said that I do not know or with bravado that they better not try, but above all, I believe, my answer would have been blanketed with a lot of scare. I am no hero. Whether what I did that day was the right thing or the best thing to do I don’t know. My response was spontaneous. I didn’t think twice. I told them to get the h… out of there and never touch that woman. It must have worked, and they disappeared. Jim, if you were to ask me what I would do today,I probably still would be scared. However, as I think back on that day, my sense of scare is filled with a sense of pride. Jim, keep up the good work. Congratulations on your courage to go back again and again knowing that there are violent men awaiting you.

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