The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
“My name is Jorge and one of my redeeming qualities is my ability to look past people’s limitations and to see God in everyone I meet.” “My name is Chung and my redeeming quality is my courage to admit my faults.” “My name is Noble Brother and my redeeming quality is my desire to rebuild all of the things that I’ve destroyed.”
These are the words of inmates at San Quentin State Prison. My synagogue, Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, sits almost in its shadow. I have spent time inside, originally through a program called The Last Mile—a righteous and redemptive program that teaches men about computer coding and helps them develop and fund business plans for when they are ultimately released. In teaching job skills, this programs seeks to end recidivism and bring new opportunities to former inmates.
I have had a chance to see up close what we all need to see: the kind of change needed in order to have a criminal justice system that keeps the public safe while still honoring the human dignity of every person. This is the heart of Reform CA’s new campaign, Tikkun Tikvah: Restore Hope. Reform Sentencing. Engage Voters.
That night at San Quentin, as our conversation progressed, the men shared more and more. The room hummed with grace, with hard-earned wisdom and with the deepest conversations about regret and repentance and redemption that I’ve ever witnessed.
I brought Psalm 118 with me that night as a springboard for our discussion. Verse 21 is one of my favorite verses in the entire Tanakh: “even ma’a’su ha’bonim hayta l’rosh pina / that stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
One of the men behind me seized on this verse: ‘Excuse me rabbi, that verse that you just read, ‘that stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ that verse is talking about how a lot of people, inside and outside of San Quentin, think about us: as a bunch of disposable human beings. What I love about this text,’ he continued ‘and about programs like The Last Mile is that they flip the story. That thing or that stone or, in our case that person that some people think is worthless trash, we actually have the potential to become the mightiest foundation stones for the grandest of buildings.’” Tikkun Tikvah is about restoring hope and the possibility of rehabilitation, even redemption to dark corners of our criminal justice system.
Together, we will pass Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 on this November’s state ballot, returning discretion over trying juveniles as juveniles to judges, reducing our prison population by allowing for the possibility of parole after serving time for one’s primary offense, and enabling successful re-entry to society by incentivizing opportunities for rehabilitation and education while in prison.
Throughout the summer and fall, Reform CA will bring together Reform Jews and other Californians affected by mass incarceration to turn out voters for the November election who share a hopeful vision of the California of our dreams. You can join the campaign in two ways:
Rabbi Michael Lezak has served Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA since 2003 and is a member of the board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call to Human Rights.