FREEDOM AND BONDAGE- THE PASSOVER PRISON SHOW

August 14, 2013

I was interviewed about filming Jews in prison for a Montreal radio show, Shtetl On The Shortwave. Newly released male Jewish prisoners who resided in a halfway house were also interviewed. Check it out if you’re interested.Freedom and Bondage The Passover Episode

POWERFUL HANUKKAH LETTER FROM JEW ON DEATH ROW

December 13, 2012

Martin Grossman wrote the following powerful and poignant letter to his Aunt Rosol , Hanukkah, 2008. He thought it was his last Hanukkah.  Turns out his feeling of his impending death was only off by one year. Martin was executed on February 16, 2010.

 

“Dear Tantellaski,                        Chanukkah Night

Feelin  (drawing of a sad face with tears)

Happy Chanukkah,

Martin Grossman on death row with his late mother, Myra

Martin Grossman on death row with his late mother, Myra

May this wacky letter find you all in great spirituality and healthfulness.

Really missin’ my mammalaski…

Thank you… for the unexpected $50.00 gelt,

And the book of cute holiday stamps.

Thank you…. for the love and wishes for Chanukkah.

Be forwarned, the other page enclosed was scribbled

during, shortly after my watching 2 Chanukkah specials on P.B.S.

Please photocopy and give one to Rhonda for me.

Maybe she’d want to include it in the documentary?

I’m outta here.

May the lord always be with, bless, love and protect you always.

Love always,

Martin

I have just been blessed to view two Chanukkah programs on P.B.S.

1) “A Chunukkah Celebration” hosted by the beautiful Fran Drescher.

2) “Lights Celebrate Hanukkah Live Concert 2008”

The following are some raw emotions during/after my viewing:

Being able to feel such sadness and heartache at one point during

Chanukkah –  or this is the first Chanukkah without my dear mother…

and quite probably “my very last Chanukkah” due to my situation!

But to also feel such joy/pain, pride/regret, watching all of the beautiful

children and young adults singing the blessings – -

I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion,

my heart begins to swell, my throat tighten up,

and all of these damn cold tears stream down my cheeks

instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

yet also so very painful and bittersweet

the absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

for the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with —

No wife, No girlfriend, No children

No fellowship here in Death Row – i am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No candles to light, No menorah, No Dreidel to spin (the remants of my youth)

No latkes, G-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how I your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am but an island of Judaism here,

self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat,

(Insert:  Unable to read this line)

Instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

Yet also oh so very painful and bittersweet

The absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

For the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with –

No wife, No Girlfriend, No Children,

No fellowship here in Death Row – I am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No latkes, G-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am, but an island of Judaism here,

Self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own Maccabean miracle,

Surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat

G-d willing I might still have more survival aspects to mount.

Martin Edward Grossman #A089742

On Chanukkah Kislev  25.  5769.”

No Thanksgiving Homecoming For Jewish Prisoners

November 22, 2012

Notes from Director/Producer Rhonda Moskowitz

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday of reconnecting with family and coming home. However, there is a segment of our nation’s Jews for whom there will be no Thanksgiving homecoming. Thousands of our nation’s Jews will spend Thanksgiving inside prisons, profoundly isolated and devoid of any genuine human connection.

Some of the people in my documentary film-in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA) will spend Thanksgiving alone in their cells. Drug addiction is what caused  them to commit the crimes for which they are being punished.  Not only will they suffer on Thanksgiving Day, but their family members will suffer. There will be empty place settings at the Thanksgiving tables of their families, as well as feelings of shame.

So when you give thanks, thank G-d you’re at a Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, and not sitting alone in a cold, hard cell. Be thankful you haven’t gone so far astray that you land in prison. Or if you have made grave mistakes, be thankful you escaped such a harsh punishment.

Be charitable in your thinking. Remember that penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Jewish prisoners are our brothers. We are our brothers keeper. Jews who have committed crimes are human beings. Every Jewish soul is capable of transformation and redemption. Every one.

AFTERMATH OF THE EXECUTION OF A JEW

October 10, 2012

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

This is the 4th in a series of essays about Martin Grossman, in preparation for my presentation at LeMood, Montreal.

I originally wrote the essay below soon after the execution of Martin Grossman. His execution was a profound experience that forever changed me. I had filmed Martin four times on death row over two years and also his surviving family members. I stayed with his family before, during and after his execution and slept in the bed of his late mother, Myra. An intense experience at the very least. People on death row and executions are something you read about or see in movies. A human face was put on a decades-long tragedy of epic proportions.

Aunt Rosol, Martin Grossman’s closest surviving relative

May, 2010

It’s been a little more than three months since Martin Grossman’s Feb. 16th execution. His last words were “Ahavat Israel,” meaning love of Jews.  Before Martin uttered these words, he recited the Shema, the watchword prayer of the Jewish faith. (Here O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one…”)   It’s traditional for a Jew to say the Shema  before he or she dies. How many Jews have uttered these words before they’ve been executed? This is unknown. It’s also unknown how many Jews in the United States  have been executed. I presume the numbers are few. Martin had a deep feeling for Judaism. He reconnected with his faith after ten years of virtual isolation in his 6 by 9 death row cell.  “I am an island of Judaism,” he wrote in a letter to his aunt, Rosol, during Hanukkah in 2008, 14 months before he died. Grief, emptiness, disbelief and depression, pretty much describe my feelings about Martin’s execution over these last few months. If I feel traumatized, it’s almost unimaginable how both Martin’s family and the family of his victim, Peggy Park, feel.  I speak to Martin’s aunt, Rosol, several times a week and I know she feels indescribably horrible. Rosol never turned her back on Martin and wrote to him and visited him on Death Row up until the day he died. I don’t know how Peggy Park’s mother and brother feel. (Her father died.)  Do they feel a sense of justice and closure? Or do they feel empty? Martin’s execution did not bring Peggy Park back. From news accounts, Peggy’s mother and brother had been waiting for over 26 years for Martin to be executed. I personally don’t believe in the death penalty, but if there is going to be a state sanctioned murder of a murderer, it should be swift. As a filmmaker, I now have the challenge of documenting Martin’s redemption, (Teshuva), and showing his humanity without sanitizing the tragic murder he committed. It’s now time to get past my grief and move forward. I didn’t know how much my documentary film meant to Martin until I read letters received by others. Seems like he intrinsinctly knew he had a lot to teach us. Paradoxically and astonishingly,  Martin, a murderer, died a Ba’al Teshuva. I’ve been given a monumental task, but I’m up to the challenge. I filmed Martin on Death Row four times, I’ve filmed his family for two years, and I have home movies from his childhood, newspaper articles and photographs. I also had the honor of filming Martin’s funeral and burial. I still need to document the tremendous advocacy efforts to save Martin’s life.  It’s  through my film, that Martin’s voice will be heard. He has a great deal to teach both Jews and non-Jews and the lessons are life-altering and profound.

THE DAY I WATCHED A MAN DIE

October 9, 2012

Note from Rhonda Moskowitz:  This is the 3rd in a series of essays about Martin Grossman. I’m excited to be giving a presentation on Martin at LeMood, Montreal’s largest Jewish festival. The amazing Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky witnessed Martin’s excecution. Below is a powerful essay he wrote about his experience. We will be skyping with Rabbi Kurinsky during my presentation.

Martin Grossman on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

The Day I Watched A Man Die

by Rabbi Nochum Kurinsky, February 2010

Today I watched a man die.

The call came in  at about 2:00 pm. “Can you be with Mr. Martin Grossman during his execution?”  How can you say no? How can you say yes? What can you say? After speaking to my wife, I decided to go. I made a few phone calls and found a companion for the road and off we went. Along the way, another friend offered to join and the three of us departed down the I95 to the I10 to be with Mr. Grossman.

A little background.

A few months ago Rabbi Mendy Katz from Aleph sent out an email to the local Chabad. Rabbis. In it was a very simple request. Due to the financial downturn Aleph could no longer afford to send Yeshiva students to all the prisons in Florida .  Would any community be willing to go visit a few prisons in their area? We volunteered. Rather, I volunteered and subsequently invited members of our community to come along.

On our first visit, during Chanukah, our group was divided into pairs of two for maximum efficiency. David Sall, a local psychiatrist and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lieberman, my lifetime friend and a local law student teamed up and I partnered with Dovid Moyer, a local financial repair specialist and businessman. Our group went to a number of prisons that day including Union Correctional. Mendy and David went to death row. As you know by now, death row housed the now world famous Martin Grossman A”H.

Several days after our visit to death row, the Governor signed Martin’s death warrant and set the date of execution for February 16th at 6:00 PM. Saddened by the news, but not really sure what to do, I kept about my daily business and even went back to visit the prison one more time with a group.

Sometime during January, Rabbi Katz called me, “Martin is going to die,” he said. “What we can do to help him?” At first, I have to admit, I was hesitant. What could I do? I’m a local Chabad Rabbi.  This is for the national organizations. After reading the proclamation by Rabbi Shochat of Los Angeles that one could even violate Shabbos to save Mr. Grossman, I was convinced.

First, I called Rabbi Mendy Katz back and told him I was on board but only to assist him, not to take charge of this. Then, I called Rabbi Oirechman the Chabad Rabbi in Tallahassee and asked if he was on board. After giving it some thought, he said that he was fully on board. Now was time to get the plan in motion.( Let also add that tremendous work was being done by many organizations at the time. This is just my account and the events that led me to watch Martin Die.) Rabbi Katz put together a letter that most of the 150 Chabad Rabbis in Florida signed. Another letter was written by Rabbi Zvi Biarsky which many Rabbis from every Jewish group signed as well, and they were both later hand delivered to the Governor by Rabbi Oirechman.

In addition, I started an online petition. On the first day we had 23 signatures, day two we had 200 on day three 1,000. At about that time, many in the broader Jewish community got involved in the cause to encourage the Governor to grant a clemency hearing to Mr. Grossman. Leaders from Agudath Israel, the OU, the RCC, many in the Yeshiva world in Monsey and Lakewood, and Satmar Chassidim were getting involved. It was simply amazing! The cause was taking a life of its own. Every day emails were being sent out to thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life encouraging them to sign the petition. At its close, the petition had in excess of 33,000 signatures; many people wrote personal and some heart rending notes. The Achdus/togetherness of Klal Yisroel/the Jewish people was heart-warming.

Just to give further insight into this we put together a website called http://www.savemartingrossman.com. While  putting the site together, I realized in amazement, that  the man with the idea for the site was a Litvisher/yeshivish Jew, the man who paid for the site was a Satmar Chosid and here I was, a card carrying Lubavitcher shliach working on the site through Chabad.org’s unbelievable server system. Incidentally, nearly 20,000 people logged onto the site during the last week alone.

That’s the background for today’s events. I’m now on the way to the prison with my two friends Dr. David Sall and Rabbi Mendy Lieberman who by divine providence are the same two people who visited Martin during Chanukah. I did not specifically call them. I asked some others first. As they say a Jew plans and G-d laughs. I planned on spending my afternoon and evening with some teenagers at the local high school doing a Jewish teen group and helping my wife who just had a baby give the kids dinner and do bedtime. David was busy with some needed recreationand Mendy was at school. None of us ever expected our day to turn out the way it did.

We got to the prison and were told, as expected, that only I could go in. Mendy and David were to wait with the media across the street. I was escorted in and given the rundown. There was to be only respectful behavior. There would be no contact with Martin. No books or metal were allowed in. I  had the opportunity to meet with and thank a few of the chaplains and department heads who had been very helpful in our past prison visits. I also met Martin’s attorney. It was touching to be able to meet the man who put up such a fight for Martin over the years. .

At about 5:30 we were escorted together with all the other people who were to witness the execution H”LS. Amongst the group were about 7 or 8 members of Ms. Parks’ family. There were a number of state witnesses, and about 6 or 7 members of the press. We were taken through the metal detectors and searched. We then passed through a number of security doors which I was all too familiar with from previous visits. The mood was a mix. People were chatting nervously and were very cordial with each other. I was so thoroughly impressed with the Parks family and the other people present. They handled themselves so courteously despite the obviously intense tension..

We were taken into a van and driven to another section of the prison. We were then escorted into a room at about 5:45. The room was about 30 feet by 15 feet; it was lined with 3 rows of chairs each about 10 chairs deep. On the last row, furthest from the front, sat the members of the media. In front of them, the state witnesses, and in the first row was the Parks family and myself. For fifteen minutes you could hear a pin drop in that room. . Nobody looked at each other. People sat in silence, just reflecting. I put on my ‘gartel’ [special belt for prayer] and started to daven/pray. First I said a number of prayers by heart and then I started to say Psalms. I became oblivious to my surroundings, just simply lost in thought and prayer. Suddenly, I began thinking, what am I doing here? Why would Hashem want me to be here? What purpose does this serve? After all, there is so much pain and hurt in this room, the Parks family suffered terribly. They are obviously still dealing with much of it. Tens of thousands of Jewish people throughout the world are sitting in prayer, hoping praying that Hashem will have mercy and grant Mr. Grossman reprieve. And much of that burden falls on my shoulders as the one Jew, the one rabbi, the one ‘shliach’ of the Lubavitcher Rebbe sitting in this room.

Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind about all of those people, those individuals that the Rebbe had reached out to through the years – one Jew at a time, mostly through his shluchim. The Rebbe loved EVERY Jew. Here again there is one Jew sitting in   a faraway place in middle of nowhere, no family with him, no love from the audience. He would have died alone. The only person that cared about him was the Rebbe, who sent Rabbi Katz to spend 4 hours with him on his dying day and me to be here while he breathes his last breath.

I started to daven that whatever I think, whatever I feel should be what the Rebbe would want me to think and/or feel. What does Hashem want me to do now? I started to sing a niggun to myself based on the words “Kiayil taarog al afikei mayim kein nafshi taarog eilecho elokim.” My soul wants to be with you Hashem …..

Almost immediately the curtain opened and there was Martin in the next room. He was only four or five feet from us, but he was strapped down and covered up until his neck. The only visible part of him was his arm, in which was an IV that would deliver the sam hamoves, the poison, and his face. In the room with him were a police officer and someone who stood with a paper and notebook presumably recording every detail of what transpired. The room also had a large clock behind Martin as well as video cameras and microphones hanging from the ceiling. Otherwise there were freshly painted walls, a sparkling clean floor, and a one way glass leading to a third room behind Martin.

Martin did not look at the crowd nor at the police officer next to him, he just stared up at the ceiling. There was silence in the room, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I for one was almost convulsing. The clock read 6:02.

The officer asked “Mr. Grossman do you have any final words?” to which Martin replied “Yes”.

Martin began “ I completely regret everything that I did on that night, both that which I remember and that which I do not”. He then said, “ I would like to say a prayer,” the officer said okay.

At that point Martin says “Shema Yisroel adon- elokenu adon- echod” in a loud voice and then said something that I will never forget so long as I live.

“Ahavat Yisroel”.

At that point I began to weep so loud that the guy behind me asked me if I would like to leave. There are no words to describe the way Martin died. Martin committed a terrible crime, one that will haunt a family  as long as they live. But with those two words he showed that, “ein dovor bo bifnei harotzon,” nothing stands in the way of a man’s will. Martin died proclaiming his affection for Yisroel his brothers and sisters throughout the world, more for G-d and his Torah as well. Martin died a repentant man, but more than that. Martin died a man that accomplished something that we as Jews have been trying to do for nearly 2,000 years He brought us together with true Jewish unity -Ahavas Yisroel.

Who knew a child born to an abusive father and sick mother, a boy who could not make it through school, a young man who shopped for drugs in his mother’s closet, a man who killed someone-  and not just a person, but a beautiful Park Ranger, who was just doing her job, while he was high on a cocktail of drugs,  could have such an incredible impact.

Martin died as a true bal Teshuvah Al Kidush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s name in public, the highest level a Jew can reach on this earth.

MARTIN GROSSMAN AND THE DEATH HOUSE

October 8, 2012

Note from director, Rhonda Moskowitz

I’m excited to be giving a presentation at LeMood in Montreal on the life and death of Martin Grossman. Here is the second in a series of blogs about him.

Mark Elliott, the amazing  executive director of Floridians For Alternatives To The Death penalty, (FADP), which is the Florida chapter of the NCADP, tirelessly  helped to spearhead the advocacy efforts to save Martin Grossman’s life.   Below is a compelling and eloquent essay written by Mark written in February, 2012.  It is well worth your time to read. Also, please feel free to share.

Martin Grossman on death row with his late mother, Myra

Martin Grossman and the Death House

by Mark Elliott, Exec. Dir. FADP

It has been one year since Florida’s execution of Martin Grossman.  Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) was a proud coalition partner in the Committee to Save Martin Grossman.  From around the world, thousands of letters, phone calls and petition signings were made beseeching then-Governor Charlie Crist to grant a 60 day reprieve to allow the Clemency Board to consider an application to commute Martin’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The many religious leaders, organizations and concerned individuals who took a brave stand for justice, tempered with mercy, should be proud.  It is not about those on Death Row and what they did…it is about US and what WE do.

Some of our current FADP coalition partners believe there is a place for the Death Penalty.  However, they acknowledge that the Death Penalty, as PRACTICED, falls well below the standards of ANY religious teachings.  As PRACTICED by government bureaucrats and ambitious politicians today, it is an abomination.  It is a practice that must end.

There have been at least 23 exonerations of wrongfully convicted people off Florida’s Death Row and 138 nationally.  It costs many times more money to try to execute someone than simply lock them up – diverting huge resources (an estimated $50 million per year in Florida alone) away from crime prevention, crime solving and crime victim’s families.  The Death Penalty gives too much attention to the perpetrator and not enough to victims and their families. We have maximum security prisons and there is the alternative sentence of life in prison with NO possibility of parole, thereby making prisoner killings unnecessary to protect the public.

What do those on Death Row in Florida and elsewhere have in common?  Yes, they have been convicted of murder.  But so have many thousands serving life sentences.

What sets them apart?  Most have some or all of the following in common:  They could not afford a lawyer.  They are severely mentally ill, now or at the time of their crime, or both.  They are intellectually disabled.  They are members of minorities.

Following Martin Grossman’s execution, then-Gov. Crist signed a Death Warrant for David Johnston to be the next prisoner executed in Florida.  David was indigent, intellectually disabled and diagnosed as severely mentally ill.  Prior to being convicted of murder, David Johnston was sent to the Leesville State School for the Retarded and his IQ tested as low as 57.  Although the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of Florida both prohibit the execution of the “mentally retarded,” prosecutors prevailed and he was sentenced to death.  Before his execution could be carried out, David Johnston died in prison on September 30, 2010.

It was the killing of another Jewish prisoner by the state that put me on the road to abolish the Death Penalty.  Ten years before Martin Grossman was executed, Terry Sims became the first Florida prisoner put to death by lethal injection.  I went to the execution vigil across the street from the prison to find answers as to why we were still killing prisoners, now that there was no chance they could ever be paroled.  A rabbi was leading a group in prayer and spoke to me of the unimaginable irony of choosing a Jew to be the first prisoner killed by lethal injection.  He explained that it was in Hitler’s Germany where this method of execution was first developed and it was used to kill Jews.  We were deeply troubled by the revival of this horrific legacy.  I made a vow to learn more about Florida’s Death Penalty program.  There is a saying, “The more you know about the Death Penalty, the less you like it.”  When I learned more, I stood up and began speaking out for abolition.

There is an abiding concern in most of us to uphold the laws of our state and nation.  Therefore, we must change the law.  Just because something has been legal doesn’t make it right.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

No government program should be permitted to forcibly kill captive prisoners.  We must take a stand.  We do not stand alone.  The specter of millions of executed prisoners in human history stands with us and urges us on.  “Qui tacet consentit” (silence implies consent).    Please stand up and speak out.

For it is time.  It is time to close the Death Houses for good.

Mark Elliott

Executive Director

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, FADP
P.O. Box 82943

Tampa, Florida  33612

727-215-9646

mark@fadp.org

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is a coalition of individuals and organizations united to abolish the Death Penalty in Florida.

FADP works to build a strong, diverse, statewide, grassroots movement which:

Opposes executions

Supports reforms aimed at reducing the application of the Death Penalty until it is ultimately abolished

Protects the humanity of all persons impacted by the Death Penalty

Educates Floridians about the Death Penalty

Provides concrete action steps for individuals and groups

Sing Sing’s Jews

August 30, 2012

Hard to believe it has been 11 years since I first filmed the Jews in Sing Sing. The catalyst was this intriguing New York Times article by journalist Marek Fuchs about the Jewish prisoners celebrating Hanukkah.

Passover Inside Prison (Florida) – 3 Minutes

April 5, 2012

Passover Inside Prison (New York) – 4 Minutes

April 5, 2012

Passover Behind Bars

April 18, 2011

Go inside Sing Sing, New York state’s largest maximum security prison and see a Passover Seder we filmed nine years ago.

Powerful Hanukkah Letter by Martin Grossman From Death Row

December 7, 2010

Martin Grossman on Death Row with his late mother, Myra. May their memories be a blessing.

Martin Grossman wrote the following powerful and poignant letter to his Aunt Rosol , Hanukkah, 2008. He thought it was his last Hanukkah.  Turns out his feeling of his impending death was only off by one year. Martin was executed on February 16, 2010.

“Dear Tantellaski,                        Chanukkah Night

Feelin  (drawing of a sad face with tears)

Happy Chanukkah,

May this wacky letter find you all in great spirituality and healthfulness.

Really missin’ my mammalaski…

Thank you… for the unexpected $50.00 gelt,

And the book of cute holiday stamps.

Thank you…. for the love and wishes for Chanukkah.

Be forwarned, the other page enclosed was scribbled

during, shortly after my watching 2 Chanukkah specials on P.B.S.

Please photocopy and give one to Rhonda for me.

Maybe she’d want to include it in the documentary?

I’m outta here.

May the lord always be with, bless, love and protect you always.

Love always,

Martin

I have just been blessed to view two Chanukkah programs on P.B.S.

1) “A Chunukkah Celebration” hosted by the beautiful Fran Drescher.

2) “Lights Celebrate Hanukkah Live Concert 2008”

The following are some raw emotions during/after my viewing:

Being able to feel such sadness and heartache at one point during

Chanukkah –  or this is the first Chanukkah without my dear mother…

and quite probably “my very last Chanukkah” due to my situation!

But to also feel such joy/pain, pride/regret, watching all of the beautiful

children and young adults singing the blessings – -

I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion,

my heart begins to swell, my throat tighten up,

and all of these damn cold tears stream down my cheeks

instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

yet also so very painful and bittersweet

the absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

for the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with —

No wife, No girlfriend, No children

No fellowship here in Death Row – i am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No candles to light, No menorah, No Dreidel to spin (the remants of my youth)

No latkes, G-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how I your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am but an island of Judaism here,

self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat,

(Insert:  Unable to read this line)

Instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

Yet also oh so very painful and bittersweet

The absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

For the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with –

No wife, No Girlfriend, No Children,

No fellowship here in Death Row – I am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No latkes, G-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am, but an island of Judaism here,

Self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own Maccabean miracle,

Surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat

G-d willing I might still have more survival aspects to mount.

Martin Edward Grossman #A089742

On Chanukkah Kislev  25.  5769.”

No Thanksgiving Homecoming For Jewish Prisoners

November 24, 2010

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

I plan to spend a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family and feast on turkey with all the trimmings. It will be a day mixed with gratitude and also an undercurrent of sadness when I think about the Jewish prisoners I have filmed in the past, the incarcerated Jews I’m currently filming and their family members. I wrote the following two Thanksgivings ago, but it still holds true.(I’ve made a few changes.)

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday of reconnecting with family and coming home. However, there is a segment of our nation’s Jews for whom there will be no Thanksgiving homecoming. Thousands of our nation’s Jews will spend Thanksgiving inside prisons, profoundly isolated and devoid of any genuine human connection. 

Some of the people in my documentary film-in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA)  will spend Thanksgiving alone in their cells. Drug addiction is what caused  them to commit the crimes for which they are being punished.  Not only will they suffer on Thanksgiving Day, but their family members will suffer. There will be empty place settings at the Thanksgiving tables of their families, as well as feelings of shame.

So when you give thanks, thank G-d you’re at a Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, and not sitting alone in a cold, hard cell. Be thankful you haven’t gone so far astray that you land in prison. Or if you have made grave mistakes, be thankful you escaped such a harsh punishment.

Be charitable in your thinking. Remember that penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Jewish prisoners are our brothers and sisters.  We are our Brothers and Sisters Keepers. Jews who have committed crimes are human beings, as are their family members. It’s a few months past Yom Kippur, but I think about love, forgiveness and Teshuva everyday. Every person is capable of transformation and redemption. Every one.

Family Member of Jewish Prisoners Speaks Out

August 10, 2010

Note from Director, Rhonda Moskowitz 

Rachel, the sister of Philip, one of the main people in our film, is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met. She has a first cousin who was on Death Row and a brother in prison for crimes he committed to support his Oxycontin habit, but she picks up the pieces, is an amazing caretaker as well as an amazing all-round human being.  The family members of Jewish prisoners are off most peoples’ radar screens and the families bear enormous burdens.  But Rachel soldiers on… (No pun intended, as she was a Jewish soldier in Desert Storm, the food drop over Kuwait.)  Here’s what she wrote in Nov. 2008 about being in our film:

“My name is Rae, short for Rachel and I am Rosol’s daughter, Philip’s sister, Myra’s niece and Elijah and Neveah’s godmother and Aunt. I would like to thank Rhonda not only for her interest in our family, but also for her compassion and respect for my family and our story. Both her and Sean are part of our family and we all love them dearly. I must admit in the scheme of this whole project I am probably the biggest “hardass” there is. I not only wondered why make this movie at all, but why glamorize the mistakes made by those who obviously were only thinking of themselves. I am slowly beginning to understand. I do realize that EVERYONE has a story in their own right. My family has gone through more turmoil than most but I want you to realize this is not a family of misfits. G-d does not give you anymore that what you can handle and I believe my family handles much more than average. Our family has also been full of extremly strong women. My bubbie (grandmother) was absolutely the single most strongest woman I ever knew. She held our family together while letting my grandfather believe he did. She raised two daughters, 20 years apart, instilled in us all a very overpowering bond in our religion and connection to our family. Yom Kippur is also a very hard time for me. It is my favorite holiday and hardest in one. I am not a perfect Jew. I can forgive for the most part but I have a very hard time forgetting. My mother has had a hell of a time holding our family together over the years and she has done a remarkable job. Unfortuneately our “family name” is the real victim here. From Martin, From Phil, and the people who really suffer are the innocent, the children. I hope that when you see this film and hear this story that you don’t spend your time feeling sorry for my brother, feeling sorry for my cousin but for the ones caught in the “wake”. My aunt, nephew and niece as well as my mother whose only mistake was unconditional love. My family is not unlike everyone else’s, we just have more to carry.
Thanks, Rhonda “

Aftermath of the Execution of a Jew

May 26, 2010

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

It’s been a little more than three months since Martin Grossman’s Feb. 16th execution. His last words were “Ahavat Israel,” meaning love of Jews.  Before Martin uttered these words, he recited the Shema, the watchword prayer of the Jewish faith. (Here O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one…”)   It’s traditional for a Jew to say the Shema  before he or she dies. How many Jews have uttered these words before they’ve been executed? This is unknown. It’s also unknown how many Jews in the United States  have been executed. I presume the numbers are few.  

Martin had a deep feeling for Judaism. He reconnected with his faith after ten years of virtual isolation in his 6 by 9 death row cell.  “I am an island of Judaism,” he wrote in a letter to his aunt, Rosol, during Hanukkah in 2008, 14 months before he died.

Grief, emptiness, disbelief and depression, pretty much describe my feelings about Martin’s execution over these last few months. If I feel traumatized, it’s almost unimaginable how both Martin’s family and the family of his victim, Peggy Park, feel.  I speak to Martin’s aunt, Rosol, several times a week and I know she feels indescribably horrible. Rosol never turned her back on Martin and wrote to him and visited him on Death Row up until the day he died. I don’t know how Peggy Park’s mother and brother feel. (Her father died.)  Do they feel a sense of justice and closure? Or do they feel empty? Martin’s execution did not bring Peggy Park back. From news accounts, Peggy’s mother and brother had been waiting for over 26 years for Martin to be executed. I personally don’t believe in the death penalty, but if there is going to be a state sanctioned murder of a murderer, it should be swift. 

As a filmmaker, I now have the challenge of documenting Martin’s redemption, (Teshuva), and showing his humanity without sanitizing the tragic murder he committed. It’s now time to get past my grief and move forward.

I didn’t know how much my documentary film meant to Martin until I read letters received by others. Seems like he intrinsinctly knew he had a lot to teach us. Paradoxically and astonishingly,  Martin, a murderer, died a Ba’al Teshuva.  

I’ve been given a monumental task, but I’m up to the challenge. I filmed Martin on Death Row four times, I’ve filmed his family for two years, and I have home movies from his childhood, newspaper articles and photographs. I also had the honor of filming Martin’s funeral and burial. I still need to document the tremendous advocacy efforts to save Martin’s life.  It’s  through my film, that Martin’s voice will be heard. He has a great deal to teach both Jews and non-Jews and the lessons are life-altering and profound.

Passover Inside a Florida Maximum Security Prison (3 min. not 8 min.)

March 25, 2010

Letter by Rabbi Menachem Katz about Martin Grossman and Jewish Prisoners

February 24, 2010

Rabbi Katz is the head of Jewish prisoner outreach at the
Aleph Institute. He is an incredible human being and changes the lives of many of our nation’s incarcerated Jews, including the late Martin Grossman.

Dear Friend,

I’m writing to you as one of over 34,000 people that signed the online petition to save Martin Grossman’s life. Another thirty thousand people also signed paper petitions as well. Tens of thousands of others called the Governor’s office and sent faxes and emails. In all, over one thousand people took steps to help save the life of another human being. I personally spent four hours with Martin on the day of his execution and I can tell you that this outpouring of love and warmth from the world Jewish community gave him comfort and strength. Martin passed away as a true Bal Teshuva, he took responsibility for his actions, expressed his most sincere remorse for his behavior and became a very humble and caring human being. Martin had no anxiety or fear of his imminent death because he knew about and felt the love that his brothers and sisters had for him around the world. By signing this petition you fulfilled the greatest Mitzvah in the Torah “To Love your Fellow Jew as yourself”. Martin requested that this show of unity and love amongst Jews from all walks of life should continue and not stop with his death. In fact the last he words he uttered in this world after Shema Yisroel were Ahavat Yisrael (Love of a fellow Jew). Martin’s Death was sad and unfortunate but you can make sure that it was not in vain.

There are four thousand Jewish inmates just in the United States. There are thousands of Jewish inmates in Israel and in other countries around the world. Martin created an awareness in the Jewish community of the plight of Jewish inmates in the penal system. To lift up the spirits of a Jew in prison is fulfilling “Love your fellow Jew as yourself” on the highest level. In one aspect, there is no worse situation that a human being can be in than prison. When one loses his or her freedom it is even worse than being sick because in prison you lose all control of your own life. A person may be in prison for committing a crime and may deserve to be there but we still have to help him or her and show them love and help them to mend their ways and return to society as law abiding and contributing members of society. The Aleph Institute has been working with and assisting Jewish prisoners for close to thirty years all over the United States.

We want to invite you to become a partner with us in this important Mitzvah. Please visit our website www.alephinstitute.org to learn more about what we do and how you can get involved. You may want to start visiting Jewish prisoners or become a pen pal or donate used or new books. How many of you have Jewish books at home that you no longer have any use for? Why should those books go to the garbage or be buried? There are many other ways that you can help and get involved. Some may just want to donate money to help Aleph fund the correspondence courses we offer or the printing of %u200Ethe books we publish and provide free of charge to Jewish prisoners. The one thing we should not do is to do nothing at all.

Thank you again for standing up and making your voice heard. The world needs more people like you who care and are willing to do something about it.

Rabbi Menachem Katz
The Aleph Institute
9540 Collins Ave
Surfside, FL 33154
mmk@alephinstitute.org
Phone: 305-864-5553
Fax: 305-864-5675
www.alephinstitute.org

URGENT TAKE ACTION TIME SENSITIVE CAMPAIGN TO STOP SCHEDULED FEB. 16TH EXECUTION OF MARTIN GROSSMAN!

February 13, 2010

There is an Urgent Take Action campaign on behalf of Martin Grossman who is scheduled to be executed in Florida on Feb. 16th that is time sensitive. If you are against the death penalty, please take action ASAP and share as widely as possible. What is important is how many people Gov. Crist hears from that are opposed to Martin Grossman’s execution.

Click here for more information about Martin and why he should not be executed.

Right now, people are asking for a 60 Day Stay, so a Clemency Petition can be prepared.

Please either call or e-mail Gov. Crist plus the 3 other members of the FL Clemency Board ASAP and tell them that you are opposed to Martin Grossman’s execution and request Gov. Crist and the Clemency Board to grant Martin Grossman a 60 Day Stay.

Gov. Crist’s telephone: 850-488-7146
E-mail: charlie.crist@myflorida.com

Below  I’m pasting 4 separate letters you can just cut and paste and type your name and location, along with the respective e-mail addresses to send the letters.

If you prefer to call, here are the Clemency Board Members telephone numbers: 1) Atty. Gen. McCollum: 850-241-18852) CFO, Alex Sink: 850-413-31003) Agriculture Commissioner Charles Branson: 850-488-3022 (Gen. phone for Office of Exec. Clemency: 850-488-2952) Please remember to call Gov. Crist, see above.

Time is of the essence!

NOTE: If you’re not from FL, please only type your name & leave out your city and state on all letters. Florida – please put your state

SUBJECT LINE OF ALL 4 LETTERS: P LEASE GRANT MARTIN GROSSMAN 60 DAY STAY

1) Letter #1:

Cut and paste the following:

Dear Gov. Crist,

My family and I respectfully request that you grant Martin Grossman a 60-Day Stay, in order for a Clemency Petition to be prepared.

You are a humanitarian and have been an excellent leader and have deftly handled difficult issues. We hope you do the right thing in Mr. Grossman’s case.

Respectfully yours,

Name:

City/State:

e-mail to:  charlie.crist@myflorida.com

cc to:   ClemencyWeb@fpc.state.fl.us

Gov. Crist tel: 850-488-7146

Please cut and paste send the following letters to the other 3 members of the FL Clemency Board.

Clemency Board Members in addition to Gov. Crist are: Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum; Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Commissioner of Agriculture, Charles Branson

SUBJECT LINE: PLEASE GRANT MARTIN GROSSMAN 60 DAY STAY

2) Ltr. # 2, please cut and paste:

Dear Atty. General McCollum,

My family and I respectfully request that you grant Martin Grossman a 60-Day Stay, in order for a Clemency Petition to be prepared.

As Attorney General, we hope you will do the right thing in Mr. Grossman’s case.

Respectfully yours,

Name:

City/State

e-mail above letter to:  info@BillMcCollum.com

Send cc to:  ClemencyWeb@fpc.state.fl.us

Atty. Gen. McCollum tel: 850-241-1885

3) Letter #3:

SUBJECT LINE: PLEASE GRANT MARTIN GROSSMAN 60 DAY STAY

Please cut and paste:

Dear Officer Sink:

My family and I respectfully request that you grant Martin Grossman a 60-Day Stay, in order for a Clemency Petition to be prepared.

As Chief Financial Officer, we hope you will do the right thing in Mr. Grossman’s case.

Respectfully yours,

Name:

City/State

e-mail above letter to:  alex.sink@myfloridacfo.com

send cc to: ClemencyWeb@fpc.state.fl.us

CFO Alex Sink Tel: 850-413-3100

4) Letter 4:

 SUBJECT LINE: PLEASE GRANT MARTIN GROSSMAN 60 DAY STAY

Please cut and paste:

Dear Commissioner Branson,

My family and I respectfully request that you grant Martin Grossman a 60-Day Stay, in order for a Clemency Petition to be prepared.

As Agriculture Commissioner, we hope you will do the right thing in Mr. Grossman’s case.

Respectfully yours,

Name:

City/State

e-mail above letter to: commissioner@doacs.state.fl.us

send cc to: ClemencyWeb@fpc.state.fl.us
Commisstioner Branson Tel: 850-488-3022

Gen. Tel. of Office of Executive Clemency: 850-488-2952

Powerful Letter From Martin Grossman about Hanukkah on Death Row

January 24, 2010

FL Gov. Charlie Crist has signed Martin’s Death Warrant. Martin is scheduled to be executed at 6 pm on Feb. 16th. For info on how to take action to stop his execution and save his life, please click on this link.
Martin Grossman, on the Day of His Bar Mitzvah

Martin, on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

Martin wrote the following powerful and poignant lette to his Aunt Rosol, Hanukkah, 2008.
“Dear Tantellaski,                        Chanukkah Night

                                                   Feelin  (drawing of a sad face with tears)

Happy Chanukkah,

May this wacky letter find you all in great spirituality and healthfulness.

Really missin’ my mammalaski…

Thank you… for the unexpected $50.00 gelt,

And the book of cute holiday stamps.

Thank you…. for the love and wishes for Chanukkah.

Be forwarned, the other page enclosed was scribbled

during, shortly after my watching 2 Chanukkah specials on P.B.S. 

Please photocopy and give one to Rhonda for me.  

Maybe she’d want to include it in the documentary?

I’m outta here.

May the lord always be with, bless, love and protect you always.

Love always,

Martin

 I have just been blessed to view two Chanukkah programs on P.B.S.

1) “A Chunukkah Celebration” hosted by the beautiful Fran Drescher.

2) “Lights Celebrate Hanukkah Live Concert 2008”

 The following are some raw emotions during/after my viewing:

Being able to feel such sadness and heartache at one point during

Chanukkah –  or this is the first Chanukkah without my dear mother…

 and quite probably “my very last Chanukkah” due to my situation!

But to also feel such joy/pain, pride/regret, watching all of the beautiful

children and young adults singing the blessings – – 

I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion,

my heart begins to swell, my throat tighten up,

and all of these damn cold tears stream down my cheeks

instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

yet also so very painful and bittersweet

the absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

for the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with —

No wife, No girlfriend, No children

No fellowship here in Death Row – i am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No candles to light, No menorah, No Dreidel to spin (the remants of my youth)

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure

I am but an island of Judaism here,

self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat,

(Insert:  Unable to read this line)

Instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

Yet also oh so very painful and bittersweet

The absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

For the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with –

No wife, No Girlfriend, No Children,

No fellowship here in Death Row – I am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am, but an island of Judaism here,

Self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

Surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat

g-d willing I might still have more survival aspects to mount.

                                                        Martin Edward Grossman #A089742

                                                            On Chanukkah Kislev  25.  5769.”

Some Thoughts About Jews Behind Bars From Readers

December 21, 2009

Note From Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz 

The thought of Jews behind bars is a startling one, especially if the crime is not white collar.  I hope RETURN (TESHUVA) will change this and will expand peoples’ consciousness. The following are some readers feelings and thoughts on this heretofore hidden, but powerful subject. 

  • From Jane:

“Thank you for bringing attention to the people behind bars. I founded HOPE-HOWSE Int’l. after witnessing an electric chair execution (GA), as media.
In the early days much of the work was with Jewish prisoners. I encourage you to PLEASE visit our website and read some of the articles in the “articles” section.
“I met G-d on Death Row” might be of interest. Also the article by Rodger Kamenetz. HOPE-HOWSE, along with Aleph and Jewish Prisoners Services serve Jewish prisoners.
Thank you for your work. “

http://www.hope-howse.org

  • From Barry (re: Martin, the Jewish prisoner we’re filming on Death Row):

“I  knew Martin as a teen and his mom was such a nice lady. Martin was such a nice kid that I dont understand how this could have have happened. To his aunt please till martin that Barry said hello.”

  • From Rabbi Yossi Caron, Jewish Chaplain, LA County Jails:

“The following drash was written by one of the men I worked intensively with during his incarceration at Men’s Central Jail. He has been sober and studying and learning as he prepares for his eventual release. We are both very hopeful that this will be the end of this chapter in Dylan’s life and that, indeed, the holiness and hope that he has been experiencing will be just the beginning for him of the life, however imperfect it may be, that he can have. A holy and sober life.

Rabbi Yossi Carron
Rabbi Chaplain, Los Angeles County Jails
California State Prison, Corcoran

“MATZAH”
A drash from Dylan L., delivered at seder inside the Los Angeles County jails

Matzah is the bread of affliction, but this year it became for me the symbol of the disease of addiction.

Matzah is flat, plain and simple. Our first bite of matzah at the seder is a bit of a shock. Darn right, it’s the bread of affliction, you think. After that first bite we cover it up with charoset, dip, anything we can to make it taste like something! Iver the days of pesach we get rather creative with it: sandwiches, matzah brie, salsa, charoset.

This is what we do to ourselves in the disease of addiction. We take that first bite of an imperfect life and we just don’t like it. But, like matzah on pesach, it’s all we’re permitted to have, So we cover it up—with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling. No matter what we slather it with though, underneath it is still the matzah of that imperfect life.

It takes the burden of addiction and the blessings of recovery, enslavement and freedom to understand that the plain, flat, simple piece of matzah, like the imperfect life we once tried to cover up with our addiction, is truly holy.”

No Thanksgiving Homecoming For Jewish Prisoners

November 27, 2009

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family and feasted on turkey with all the trimmings. The day was mixed with gratitude and also an undercurrent of sadness when I thought about the Jewish prisoners I’m filming and their families. I wrote the following last Thanksgiving, but it still holds true:

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday of reconnecting with family and coming home. However, there is a segment of our nation’s Jews for whom there will be no Thanksgiving homecoming. Thousands of our nation’s Jews will spend Thanksgiving inside prisons, profoundly isolated and devoid of any genuine human connection. 

Some of the people in my documentary film-in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA)  will spend Thanksgiving alone in their cells. Drug addiction is what caused  them to commit the crimes for which they are being punished.  Not only will they suffer on Thanksgiving Day, but their family members will suffer. There will be empty place settings at the Thanksgiving tables of their families, as well as feelings of shame.

So when you give thanks, thank G-d you’re at a Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, and not sitting alone in a cold, hard cell. Be thankful you haven’t gone so far astray that you land in prison. Or if you have made grave mistakes, be thankful you escaped such a harsh punishment.

Be charitable in your thinking. Remember that penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Jewish prisoners are our brothers. We are our brothers keeper. Jews who have committed crimes are human beings. Every Jewish soul is capable of transformation and redemption. Every one.

 

Isolated Jewish Prisoner Receives Ray of Light

September 16, 2009

Note from director, Rhonda Moskowitz: 

The 24 year old  man we’re filming, Philip (Hebrew name Fivel), sent this blog at my request, and  writes with a great deal of heart and humanity. I’m committed to  giving him a voice before the film is released, where otherwise he would remain unheard. And what a voice he has!  He is one of the main people in my film, RETURN (TESHUVA).

Fivel’s Blog

Allow me to give a short geography lesson.  The location of my prison is in the middle of nowhere. The city is called Lake Butler, but I think over exaggeration had a hand in naming it– maybe Pond Butler, (lol).  Sorry, to the point:  In Pinellas County Jail I was  privy to Tefillin, kosher meals and weekly Torah service. None of the above are offered here. No Tefillin, not even a designated row in the chapel for prayer.

Okay, I made my bed. So independent study has been my method of spiritual renewal. I’ve had help from Rabbi Katz* (The Aleph Institute), my family, and another great rabbi, Rabbi Segal,** and I have been working diligently through Rabbi Segal’s publications (The Handbook For Jewish Spiritual Renewal and the Compendium to Talmudic and Ethical Torah Teachings.) Gentlemen and family, I thank you.  But I’ve had a long time without any physical conversation with someone like myself or a rabbi or any Jew for that matter.

Well about a month ago, I get called up to the officers station and they inform me that a chaplain ws here to see me.  I was not only shocked at the visit, but the reaction of who the visitor was, was in their eyes.

So, as I’m walking to the Visitor Park, I get interrogated by several officers about my religious beliefs; this in turn told me that a rabbi was here to see me.  When the staff was satisfied by my answers they permitted me into the Visitor Park. There stood a 21 year old post Yeshiva student ready to welcome me with smiles and open arms.

His name is Moshe Minsky and resides in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY. He was small in stature, large in enthusiasm. At one point of our hour visit, he wanted to dance like it ws Simchas Torah. The officer told him that “supervised” the visit was not so amused. Although I was.

We had a wonderful discussion, talking Midrashic tales and Talmudic thought comparison. And yes, he had Tefillin with him. Much to his delight I could put them on correctly and daven (pray) without assistance. He informed me that most of the Hews he’s seen didn’t have much of a clue how to dress them properly. He was happy, I was thrilled, and I wanted to thank him, Moshe Minsky, for dedicating his time and heart to warming up mine  in physical exile from my people.

On behalf of the Aleph Institute, I wanted to extend a deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Katz for arranging the visit as well.

So everyone, thank you for listening and hopefully some of these heartwarming experiences to me can move the hearts of you all, too. If there are questions or any related words you wish to ask me, you are surely entitled to leave a comment.

As we approach the High Holidays, I eagerly ask you all to do some Chesbon Ha Nefesh (Inventory of the Soul) and look at how we can improve for next year. We are daily getting closer to Moschiach (the Messiah) coming, and only positively observed mitzvot  will hurry him along.  Thanks for your time. May HaShem (G-d) guide you in all your endeavors.

A special thanks to Rhonda Moskowitz, producer and director, for walking with me every step of this epic. I love you.

Mom, dad, Josh, Rachel, Kelly, connor, Dana and all the Osnos’s. I love you guys, too. The Merchant family as well.

My cousin, Martin, in Union Correctional, *** I love you, cuz.

My Beshert, Courtney, and my two wonderful children, Elijah and Camden. I love you so much, I swear and I promise.

Shalom,

Fivel (Philly)

Directors Notes:

* Rabbi Menachem Katz is in charge of sending rabbis and Yeshiva students into prisons throughout our nation to work with incarcerated Jews.  For many Jewish prisoners, the people sent by Rabbi Katz are the only contact they have with fellow Jews, as you just read in Philip’s case.

**   I came upon Rabbi Arthur Segal and his two Jewish Renewal books on the internet by happenstance. I thought Philip might benefit from them and e-mailed the rabbi. Rabbi Segal, out of the goodness of his heart, extended a helping hand. He arranged to send his two books to Philip in prison, at no charge, and is now working intensely with Philip, as a spiritual guide to help Philip lead a righteous life. Toda Raba to Rabbi Segal!  Check out his books.

From a Jew in the Depths of Exile in Prison

August 24, 2009

The following blog is written by Philip, (Fivel),  a young, 24 year old man in my doc-in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA) . Philip sent this blog from his prison  for me, director Rhonda Moskowitz, to post. (I wrote to him to feel free to send me blogs.)

By Fivel Ben Avraham — 

Hello again to my friends and welcome to this site. “First timers” hope that you enjoy and return, and faithful returnees, it’s good to have you come.

I’ve been in prison now for 5 months. Adjustment has been completed and now time is left.  I have 58 more months left. (Well I guess I did a little better than Joseph.)

Galuth (exile). Exile is something that is hard to come to grips with when you truly realize the depth of your situation. Not only am I away from my family, Courtney (my Beshert), my two children, Elijah and Camden, but I’m away from my community, my heritage, and my people. 

Out of 420 inmates at my current “residence,” I’m the only Jewish one. What type of service could I offer to my people in such galuth?  The Talmudic sages say that “we were cast all over the world to spread “Ahavat Chesed” (Acts of Loving Kindness), and to bring the world closer to Redemption.

We as Jews have to set examples of how to live. In the Ethics of Fathers, (Chapter 2 Verse 5), Rabbi Hillel says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man!” The very breath of our existence and the path to Olam Haba, (the World to Come), is loving God with all your heart, soul and might, and loving your fellow man as you love your self. (Deuteronomy Chapt. 6, Verse 4; Leviticus Chapt. 9, Verse 18)

So, how does this relate to my galuth?  I believe I was exiled to not only find Hashem, (G-d), live righteously, and improve myself drastically, but also help others on the path of their own individual Teshuvahs (Return). We are all scattered to the four corners of the earth to rectify hate, depression and spiritual death. Only when we all strive with our entire beings to help our fellow man and live upright will our preceding prayer to the Shema be answered.

We are in the month of Elul. It’s time to study more, work on our vices and help-out more.  So with that being said, may the Lord gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth and grant each of us our portion in the wondrous land that He has bestowed upon us.

“I Don’t Understand How This Could Have Happened”

July 23, 2009

Received a comment this week from a gentleman about Martin, the Jew I’ve been filming on death row, that has cut like a knife through my heart.  Here’s what it said:

“I knew Martin as a teen and his mom was such a nice lady. Martin was such a nice kid that I don’t understand how this could have happened…”

I don’t understand how this could have  happened, either, and it’s one of the biggest issues I grapple with in the course of making the film.

“This” refers to the brutal murder of a 26 year old female Wildlife Officer, Peggy Park, 25 + years ago by Martin,  when he was 19.

I’ve been filming Martin, and also his aunt, uncle and cousins.   We were supposed to film Martin’s  mother, Myra, but she  unexpectedly died on the first day we flew in to film this extraordinary family.  I never had the chance to meet Myra, (may her memory be a blessing), but everyone, without exception, has told me that she was a wonderful, sweet, thoughtful and giving woman.  

I’ve seen amazing wonderful, sweet,  thoughtful and giving qualities in  Martin. It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around the paradox of such a brutal crime being committed by a person who possesses such humanity.

I’ve previously written about how Martin declined to be let out of death row to attend his mother’s funeral. This unselfish act took my breath away. Martin thought his presence might turn her funeral into a circus-like atmosphere. Instead of being with family members, some of whom he hasn’t seen in over two decades, he opted to remain isolated and grieve alone in his cold, hard cell.

There’s a great deal we can all learn from the complicated nature of the souls of human beings.  I’m still working my way through all of this.

I only hope the film can do justice to the people who have the courage to be in it,  and the multi-layered, profound and complicated subject matter. Viewers won’t look at anyone, even themselves, the same way.

BLOG #4 FROM PHILIP – A JEW, NOW IN PRISON — A BLOG ABOUT SHAVUOT

May 29, 2009

From Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

The following is a wonderful blog about Shavuot, from Philip, (Hebrew name, Fivel), a young man in my documentary film in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA).

Philip is currently incarcerated in prison, having recently been transferred from a county jail.

FIVEL THE LEVI — SHAVUOT BLOG            05-19-09

SHAVUOT — RECEIVING THE MOST PRECIOUS GIFT OF ALL TIME

Fivel The Levi -

As we approach the 2nd of the major festivals, I hope your visits to the site are invigorating and continue to be enlightening. First, I would like to give a warm, “I love you,” to Rhonda, both my children, Elijah and Camden, my mother, Rosol, and wife, Courtney. Sorry I cannot celebrate the holiday physically with you, but spiritually I’m right next to you.

Shavout has some extraordinary meaning for me. The holiday celebrates the giving of the beloved Torah to the Israelites. Although Torah was taught through man prior to this event, Shavout commemorates G-d actually bestowing His word, Himself. Commonly referred to as “The greatest fireworks display in the history of the world,” the momentous event will never be duplicated again.

The Israelites were frozen in fear because of the awe-inspring power of HaShem (God). Even with the reassurances of the greatest prophet of all time, they still were terrified of the unparalleled power of the Almighty. The Jews finally knew (as if there wasn’t enough indication prior) that the Lord is mighty on high.

“We will do and we will listen” was the pledge of the Jewish people at the foot hills of Mt. Sinai. Our sages have compared this event to the marriage, union of G-d and the Israelites. We became His people and He became our G-d. The oneness of oneness.

No Jew could ever doubt the power of the Lord. Try and visualize Mount Sinai on fire as the Lord descended to deliver our everlasting Law and the pious Kohanim (Cohen.. Kohans or Kohanim are descendents of Moses’s brother, Aaron) as well as the other Jews falling to their knees to worship the holy oneness of Adonai (God). Very powerful.

This holiday is the time for us to visualize the wonderous teachings Our Father bestowed upon us. Showing us through that picture, it’s time to rededicate ourselves further to our Torah and our G-d. Only through every one of us sacrificing physical pleasures, and human interests, and devoting ourselves to HaShem (God), can we lift the Gates of Heaven and bring Moshiach (the Messiah).

So, be happy, truly, we have a G-d who truly loves us, so we can reciprocate that love by trying harder to study Torah and observe mitzvot (commandments in the Torah). Of course, HaShem thanks you on behalf of all the Children of Israel for the blessed Torah.

Happy Shavuot,

Fivel Ben Avraham (Philip Son of Abraham)

BLOG #3 – BY PHILIP, A JEW IN JAIL – THE POWER OF PRAYER

May 21, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

The following is a powerful blog written by 24 year old, Philip, (Hebrew name, Fivel), one of the people in my documentary film-in-process, now titled “RETURN (TESHUVA).” Philip sent this to me from a county jail dated February 8, 2009, to post on the blog. I’m still catching up from surgery on a broken arm, but I’m getting there. Stick with it to the end. It’ll be worth it.

“Fivel’s Blog From the Other Side:

Shalom alechem, (Hello everyone), peace be unto you all. I hope that the week’s events have not left anyone in distress. T’Shuvah (the Judaic concept of redemption) is a wonderful thing. I have conquered another wonderful step upon the proverbial ladder of Judaism this past week.

I have fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment) of Tefillin (small black leather boxes, paired with leather straps, that contain Bible verses written on parchment scrolls), for the first time since confirmation class over 9 years ago. Putting on the Phylactories (Tefillin) and chanting the blessings was absolutely exhilerating as well as moving.

They have tons of Christian-based programs that you can sign up for and attend rather easily here. Until last Tuesday, the Jewish program has been shielded from my eyes. Through diligent correspondence between myself and the chapel staff, I was finally made aware (despite over 60 hours a week offered in just my division of Pinellas County Jail) that there is in fact a Jewish Service in action, 1 hour a week, Wednesday afternoons 1:30 – 2:30 eastern standard time.

As you can imagine, I was super motivated even after finding out it was run by another inmate, (one who has been incarcerated for 3 years here awaiting trial). I attend, and instead of taking a pessimistic approach at the 5 other inmates out of 4,500, I’m pleased to be around my community.

The leader was knowledgeable. But other than him and myself you could easily tell that people were just trying to get out of their housing units for an hour. This again didn’t bother me. The leader asks if I know how to don the Tefillin. It quickly came back to me after an absence of 9 (nine) years. I grabbed the siddur (prayer book) and began with the blessings. A spiritual awakening, to say the least, came about inside of me. Just recalling the wonderful rapture brings goose bumps back to my person.

I don’t stop at the blessings and immediately go into the Shema (“Hear oh Israel, the Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One…) and I recite Deuteronomy Chapter 6: Verses 4 – 9  in perfect Hebrew, with the most focus and genuine melody, and by the time I finished and “came back to earth” (so-to-speak), I turned to see the other 5 men silent and listening to me davening (praying). One asks the leader, “What was that beautiful hymn?” The leader responds,
“Our holiest prayer in perfect Hebrew.”

The Torah portion that was read yesterday (Beshalach 5769) contained the powerful song sung by the Israelites after the parting of the Red Sea. Music is the divine language. Taking words and turning words to melody, forever lifting our souls to places without bars, chains or fences. Where there isn’t a force that could keep us incarcerated and through the prayer exhibited amongst five strangers. They, along with myself, were released to our own places of freedom, if only for moments.

So, what a coincidence, this week’s (Torah) portion shows true. That song and devotion can take you to a place of nirvana, a place of true spiritual freedom. Good things can come out of bad situations. God is truly merciful. He will never foresake his Children of Israel.

Well, until next time. I will pray for all of us. Rhonda, my mentor, friend and director, thank you for allowing me to develop my redemption through the power of the pen, you are truly wonderful. Blessings to my entire family from Rosol to Martin, Paul, Mosh, Elijah and Dana and, Courtney, and ours on the way. Rabbi Cutler, my heart goes to you and I know you were there with me during the Tefillin mitzvah. *

Until the pen reaches paper -

Fivel Ben Abraham (Philip Son of Abraham)

Shalom Alechem

* Director’s Note: Rabbi Cutler, who performed Philip’s Bar Mitzvah and who was also Phil’s spiritual advisor as a volunteer county jail chaplain, died unexpectedly last summer.

From an LA County Jail: The Holiness of an Imperfect Life

May 15, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

I received the following from a rabbi who works as a prison chaplain in the Los Angeles County Jails. The rabbi sent something profound and unique written by a prisoner, as a comment to my blog. What this prisoner has to say is too powerful to be buried in the ‘Comments’ section. Here it is, unedited:

“May 4, 2009

The following drash was written by one of the men I worked intensively with during his incarceration at Men’s Central Jail. He has been sober and studying and learning as he prepares for his eventual release. We are both very hopeful that this will be the end of this chapter in Dylan’s life and that, indeed, the holiness and hope that he has been experiencing will be just the beginning for him of the life, however imperfect it may be, that he can have. A holy and sober life.

Rabbi Yossi Carron
Rabbi Chaplain, Los Angeles County Jails
California State Prison, Corcoran

“MATZAH”
A drash from Dylan L., delivered at seder inside the Los Angeles County jails

Matzah is the bread of affliction, but this year it became for me the symbol of the disease of addiction.

Matzah is flat, plain and simple. Our first bite of matzah at the seder is a bit of a shock. Darn right, it’s the bread of affliction, you think. After that first bite we cover it up with charoset, dip, anything we can to make it taste like something! Iver the days of pesach we get rather creative with it: sandwiches, matzah brie, salsa, charoset.

This is what we do to ourselves in the disease of addiction. We take that first bite of an imperfect life and we just don’t like it. But, like matzah on pesach, it’s all we’re permitted to have, So we cover it up—with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling. No matter what we slather it with though, underneath it is still the matzah of that imperfect life.

It takes the burden of addiction and the blessings of recovery, enslavement and freedom to understand that the plain, flat, simple piece of matzah, like the imperfect life we once tried to cover up with our addiction, is truly holy.”

Blog #2 From a Jew in Jail

May 8, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

As I’ve previously written, I’m recovering from a badly broken right arm and subsequent surgery. While I’m on the mend, it’s still hard to type. I’m just now catching up on the writings from the county jail of one of the TESHUVA film’s main characters, an extraordinary young man named Philip, (Hebrew name, Fivel). I wrote to him to feel free to send me blogs to post.

The following is the second blog Phil sent me, dated January 31, 2009, from the county jail.

“Fivel’s Blog #2:

Hello faithful listeners, loyal subscribers, and the pit-stoppers. Shalom. I hope that spirits are high and the love of freedom is not taken for granted. Things can change drastically, very quickly. This entry comes from Central Booking, Pinellas County Jail, Florida. Unfortunately, this won’t be my last one.

First, my health is good and my faith is unwavering. Actually, maturing everyday… Knowledge and maturity are two very different things — especially in reference to Judaism.

My knowledge of Hebrew, holidays, traditions, prayers, blessings, etc. are vast and deep. But until now, I hadn’t really had a grasp of what I knew. To know things is good, but to understand and be able to interpret what you know, so you can fully utilize your potential, well that’s extremely wonderful.

Take caution not to succumb to lip-service prayer. Be truly devoted. And it’s easy enough when you take time to divulge all the spectacular pieces of religious wonders within the Torah.

These things are what’s important: The corners of the field, attending the sick, dowering the bride, the first fruits, early attendance at the school house, accompanying the deceased to the grave, devotion in prayer.

But the study of Torah exceeds them all. Incorporate the Torah, Talmud and all related subjects into daily life and you’re guaranteed not to slip.

Shalom Alechem, blessings to all the Children of Israel, my family, my son, Elijah, and my director (amongst other things), Rhonda.

Love,
Fivel Ben Avraham
(Philip Son of Abraham)”

PASSOVER IN PRISONS

April 7, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

Some of the people in my doc film-in-progress,Teshuva (Return), are observing Passover, alone in their respective prisons.

However, I’ve had unprecedented access to direct film shoots of  two separate Passover Seders inside two different maximum security state prisons. Scroll down to watch them.

If you find these compelling, please help support Teshuva (Return), which is a break-through feature length documentary. We have been filming Jews in prisons and their family members, but there is still more to film. 

This powerful project is non-profit and has been funded mostly by private donors such as yourself. Both large and small donations are needed.  You can make a secure, tax-deductible on-line donation.


Also, feel free to forward this blog to friends, family and listservs.

Passover in Tomoka C.I., Daytona Beach, FL  (Length is 3:08, NOT 8:13)


(Length:  3:08)  Charles Johnson, who is serving a life sentence for burglary and assault, without parole, leads a Passover Seder inside Tomoka Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison.  The prison is predominantly Christian, and there is no Rabbi on staff. We filmed this in 2006.

Passover in Sing Sing C.F., Ossining, NY (Length:  4:18)

Sing Sing has more Jews than Tomoka, and there is a Rabbi on staff. We filmed a mock Passover Seder (meaning a Seder held the week before Passover) in 2002, led by the prison Rabbi.

 
Contact: rhonda(at)shininglightproductions(dot)(com)

BLOG #1 BY PHILIP, A JEW IN JAIL

April 3, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz:

I’ve been out of commission for a long time, due to a broken right arm and subsequent surgery.  Shortly before I broke my arm, I received a letter from one of  Teshuva (Return)’s   main characters, 23 year old Philip, (Hebrew name, Fivel), whom I’ve grown to love. (Not in a romantic sense.  I’m middle-age and married.)  We had been corresponding.  I printed out my blogs, sent them to him in the county jail, and wrote that he should feel free to write blogs and I’ll post them. 

The following is Philip’s first blog, dated January 17th, which I’m delighted to finally post:

“Teshuva –  Philip Melton/Fivel Ben Abraham (Philip Son of Abaham)

Fivel’s First Blog – 

Shalom, faithful subscribers and first time visitors.  This is your main man, Phil.  Regretfully, I am writing this blog from the depths of incarceration, a state at which due to drug addiction, has been somewhat familiar for some time now.

Without saying too much about the movie, situations like this can come up abruptly, so always be on the path of righteousness, never foresaking Adonai (God) and your loved ones.

My support system is and was always there for me, at any cost, starting with my mother, Rosol. This woman defines true altruism, and displays unlimited unselfishness.  Exhibited by putting her sons, family, and most of all Hashem (God) above herself. I love her very much, although the tie that binds loyalty is unflinching, (Rosol), the rest of my support system has taken a severe blow in the 2008 year. 

First my Aunt Myra, (whom I was extremely close with) died days before my release from custody (May 3, 2008). Then, as my sobriety slipped, my life long friend and spiritual leader, died in the midst of helping me refinding the path.

These are terrible things for an addict to go through, and my complex allowed me to use these tragic events not to be stronger, but slip down to the clutches of something I’ve never experienced.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this wonderful narrative about struggle, time lost and, hopefully, redemption, (teshuva), with a wonderful director, (Rhonda). It’s sure not to disappoint.

Rhonda, I love you very much, as well as Rosol, Elijah my son, Dana and the rest of my family. When times are tough, remember, the Children of Israel are never alone.

God –  Bless.

Philip Melton”

Hanukkah Letter From Jew on Death Row

January 13, 2009

Notes from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

 

The following letter is written by Martin, one of the people in our film, a Jew who has been on Death Row for over 24 years. Martin’s mother, Myra, died unexpectedly in April, 2008. She visited her son, who was her only child, consistently over the decades with her sister, Rosol. Rosol has continued to visit Martin since her sister’s passing. This letter by Martin is written to his Aunt Rosol.

 

“Dear Tantellaski,                        Chanukkah Night

                                                   Feelin  (drawing of a sad face with tears)

Happy Chanukkah,

 

May this wacky letter find you all in great spirituality and healthfulness.

 

Really missin’ my mammalaski…

 

Thank you… for the unexpected $50.00 gelt,

And the book of cute holiday stamps.

 

Thank you…. for the love and wishes for Chanukkah.

 

Be forwarned, the other page enclosed was scribbled

during, shortly after my watching 2 Chanukkah specials on P.B.S. 

Please photocopy and give one to Rhonda for me. 
Maybe she’d want to include it in the documentary?

  

I’m outta here.

May the lord always be with, bless,

love and protect you always.

 

Love always,

Martin

 

 I have just been blessed to view two Chanukkah programs on P.B.S.

 

1) “A Chunukkah Celebration” hosted by the beautiful Fran Drescher.

2) “Lights Celebrate Hanukkah Live Concert 2008”

 

The following are some raw emotions during/after my viewing:

Being able to feel such sadness and heartache at one point during

Chanukkah -  or this is the first Chanukkah without my dear mother…

 and quite probably “my very last Chanukkah” due to my situation!

But to also feel such joy/pain, pride/regret, watching all of the beautiful

children and young adults singing the blessings – - 

I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion,

my heart begins to swell, my throat tighten up,

and all of these damn cold tears stream down my cheeks

instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

yet also so very painful and bittersweet

the absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

for the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with —

No wife, No girlfriend, No children

No fellowship here in Death Row – i am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No candles to light, No menorah, No Dreidel to spin (the remants of my youth)

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure

I am but an island of Judaism here,

self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat,

(Insert:  Unable to read this line)

Instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

Yet also oh so very painful and bittersweet

The absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

For the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with –

No wife, No Girlfriend, No Children,

No fellowship here in Death Row – I am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am, but an island of Judaism here,

Self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

Surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat

g-d willing I might still have more survival aspects to mount.

 

                                                       Martin Edward Grossman #A089742

 

                                                           On Chanukkah Kislev  25.  5769.”

 

 

 

Miracle Of Lights

December 26, 2008

Notes from Director/Rhonda Moskowitz:

I’m here as a guest at the house of Philip’s family, one of the family’s in our film, TESHUVA, in order to film the celebration of  Hanukkah, a holiday that commerates a light that was supposed to last for only one day that ended up lasting for eight. (This is an unusual circumstance in itself. Most filmmakers do not stay with their film subjects, but both the film and the people in it are unique.)

I can’t help but think now here is a family who has been through and is still going through such incredibly tough times that their light, metaphorically speaking, should have gone out a long time ago or at least have become dim. 

Two family members are incarcerated, (one is on Death Row), another has hepatitis C, and one household just lost their home due to foreclosure and has to move in one month.  This would crush the average person. But this family is far from average.

I’ve been staying at their house for four days, and their light is burning brightly…

Rosol, the matriarch,  is hosting her annual Hanukkah party with beautiful, hand crafted 50 year old decorations, and an expansive and breathtaking floor-to-ceiling wall of gifts that has to be seen to be believed. Rosol’s sister Myra, who lived here in Rosol’s household, passed away last April. This will be the first Hanukkah celebration without her.

I hope the family members who are incarcerated and whose light has dimmed, are inspired by Hanukkah to reach within themselves and let it shine. We all have a divine light inside of us, even if we’ve lost our way and have been in the dark. It is up to us to find it, nurture it  and to keep it burning brightly.

I know this family has, which under the circumstances, is a miracle.

Gail (“There but for the Grace of God go I…”)

December 16, 2008

When I first met Gail, her twenty-three year old daughter, Dana,was incarcerated, one month away from giving birth to her second child, her other daughter, Michele, was one week out of rehab, and her son, Max, was soon to graduate from 8th grade at his Jewish day school. Talk about stress! Dana had also attended Jewish day school. My own daughter went to Jewish day school and Gail and her children could be any “typical” middle class Jewish family. I look at Dana and hope and pray that what happened to her never happens to my daughter. I look at Gail, and think “There but for the grace of God go I.” This scares the hell out of me.  

 

Dana’s Oxycontin addiction shattered her life and her family’s, and our film is documenting their struggles.  I’m deeply touched and extremely grateful that Gail and her wonderful family have opened up their lives to us as filmmakers. Gail could not have been more warm and welcoming to us from the moment we met her and she continues to be this way.

 

The birth of Dana’s baby was a mixed blessing. On one hand, a brand new beautiful baby granddaughter came into this world.  On the other hand, she was born in a prison hospital. We’re all one step away from our lives falling apart. Addiction can happen to anyone.

 

I love Gail, Michele, Max and Dana. Their struggles could be any of our struggles. I hope our film, TESHUVA (RETURN) will take away the shame and stigma of addiction and also of incarcerated Jews. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Squandered Lives

December 9, 2008

Notes From Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

 

It breaks my heart to think that Martin, one the people in my film, has been sitting on Death Row for almost two and a half decades. When he was 19, he was a troubled young man on drugs and brutally took a life. My heart breaks for the victim’s family, (the young woman he murdered was only 26 years old), for the young woman’s life who was lost, for her unrealized potential, for Martin’s unrealized potential. Loved ones can never fully recover when someone takes a life. I’ve never met the victim’s family and can’t imagine their suffering, but I’m filming Martin’s family and they suffer a lot.

 

Martin’s mother, Myra,  died unexpectedly last spring. Death Row officials were going to allow Martin to attend her funeral, however Martin declined. Martin would have had to attend his mother’s funeral flanked by two armed guards with his wrists and ankles in shackles.  “I don’t want to be a trained bear on a leash,” he said. “I want my mother to have a funeral with dignity.”

 

This would have been the first time in decades Martin would have seen many of his family members. His mother’s funeral would also have helped him process his mother’s death. (She and her sister, Rosol, visited him on Death Row over the years.)  Interesting how you can find humanity in the souls of people who have committed unspeakable acts.

 

Martin’s first cousin, Philip, and  Dana, the mother of Philip’s three year old son, have great humanity and potential. They’re 20 years younger than Martin. I hope drug addiction doesn’t get the better of them.  I hope they, too,  don’t squander their lives.

 

A Little Soul Cleansing

December 2, 2008

Some thoughts from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

 

I read with horror about the Black Friday stampede of 2,000 shoppers at a Long Island, New York Walmart that killed a 34 year old employee, Jdimytai  Damour. Tension built as people waited for hours to buy merchandise at bargain prices.  When the doors opened the crowd rushed in and a life was extinguished.  And for what?  A flat screen TV? A computer?  A camera?  To save a few bucks?  

 

Meanwhile, on Plum Island in Massachusetts, 79 year old widow, Geri Buzzotta’s ocean front house was deemed unsafe and demolished the night before Thanksgiving so it wouldn’t fall into the sea.  A couple of days later, she returned to the wreckage that was once her home.  After seventy-nine years of living and 57 years of marriage, all that Geri Buzzotta could salvage was a shoe, two spoons, a necklace and a green heart-shaped piece of glass. “Everything else was taken away, but love never dies,” was her remarkable reaction.

 

I think about how some of my film subjects live with only the bare basics in their prison cells. When they were arrested, cell phones, computers, cameras, nice clothes and whatever other stuff they possessed were suddenly taken away from them. Stuff they’ll only get back if or when they’re released.  

 

Famous ascetics such as Siddhartha Guatama, (Buddha) and Henry David Thoreau consciously chose paths to enlightenment by living basic lives and casting off material goods.  Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical, but fictional Ivan Denisovich  successfully transcended his harsh prison surroundings.

 

Living a life of forced austerity is part of the punishment prisoners face for their crimes. I hope the prisoners in my film Teshuva (Return) will use their lack of stuff wisely and take advantage of their spartan existence to cleanse their souls. Their incarceration could be blessings in disguise.

 

The prisoners lives could teach us all a lesson. We have gone astray, not by having committed crimes, but with our passionate embrace of materialism.  Perhaps we could make positive use of our disasterous economy and make some fundamental changes in our own lives.  After all, we can all use a little soul cleansing.  

 

No Homecoming On Thanksgiving For Jewish Prisoners

November 25, 2008

Notes from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday of reconnecting with family and coming home. However, there is a segment of our nation’s Jews for whom there will be no Thanksgiving homecoming. Thousands of our nation’s Jews will spend Thanksgiving inside prisons, profoundly isolated and devoid of any genuine human connection. 

Some of the people in my documentary film-in-progress, TESHUVA (RETURN), will spend Thanksgiving alone in their cells. Drug addiction is what caused  them to commit the crimes for which they are being punished.  Not only will they suffer on Thanksgiving Day, but their family members will suffer. There will be empty place settings at the Thanksgiving tables of their families, as well as feelings of shame.

So when you give thanks, thank G-d you’re at a Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, and not sitting alone in a cold, hard cell. Be thankful you haven’t gone so far astray that you land in prison. Or if you have made grave mistakes, be thankful you escaped such a harsh punishment.

Be charitable in your thinking. Remember that penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Jewish prisoners are our brothers. We are our brothers keeper. Jews who have committed crimes are human beings. Every Jewish soul is capable of transformation and redemption. Every one.

WHO ARE YOU?

November 21, 2008

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

You are:

  • a prisoner
  • a drug addict
  • a thief
  • an adulterer
  • a sinner
  • an alcoholic
  • a murderer

We tend to define people who have gone astray in their worst moment where they remain stuck in our minds, sometimes for the rest of their lives. This is dehumanizing, especially if the person is trying to turn their life around, make ammends for any harm they’ve done to others, and do Tikum Olam (repair the world). We also tend to look at people as “bad” or “good,” and these strict perceptions are why, especially in the case of public figures, we have fallen idols, or why we’re surprised when a revered person we know has feet of clay.

You are:

  • a mother
  • a father
  • a doctor
  • an accountant
  • a writer
  • a waitress
  • a rabbi
  • an activist
  • a minister
  • an environmentalist
  • a poet
  • a husband
  • a wife
  • an entrepreneur
  • a teacher
  • a philanthropist
  • a son
  • a daughter
  • a student
  • helpful
  • compassionate

People are not all black and white, they’re complicated, multi-dimensional and contradictory.  There are many shades of gray and many facets to an individual. It diminishes us to perceive and define people narrowly.

In the course of making TESHUVA (RETURN), so much of what I know about people has been turned inside out and upside down.

It is my hope that when viewers see the film, their minds will expand, and the way we look at ourselves and others as people will never be the same again.

Dana, Phil and Addiction

November 15, 2008

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

We are following  Dana and Phil, who are the young Jewish parents of three year old, Elijah. Both Dana and Phil were incarcerated during most of Elijah’s second year of life. You can see their photographs on the photos page of the film’s web site.

We first filmed 23 year old Dana when she was in a maximum security prison, one month away from giving birth to her daughter. This prison is the only state facility that houses pregnant females. How did Dana, who was born to a middle class Jewish family, a successful student and editor of her high school newspaper, end up pregnant and incarcerated?

Phil had been released from jail the day before we first filmed him. Handsome, charismatic and intelligent, he has a strong spiritual connection to Judaism and had been working with a Rabbi  while incarcerated to help himself change. Phil had stolen from his aunt and a few days before his release, his aunt unexpectedly passed away. The Rabbi, who coincidentally had performed Phil’s Bar Mitzvah 10 years before, had plans to continue to work with Phil after his release. However, a short time after Phil got out, the Rabbi suddenly died. These two monumental losses sent Phil into a downward spiral of loss, grief and guilt.

Both Phil and Dana struggle with addiction to Oxycontin. The drug ‘s addictive powers are enormous. Oxyncontin shattered their lives and their families lives. They’ve betrayed and hurt their loved ones and also committed crimes out of desperation to get ahold of this terrible drug.

Our film is just as much a film about drug addiction as it is a film about Jewish prisoners. There is addiction in my family and also in the cinematographer, Sean’s family. Some of our film shoots are so harrowing, I don’t know how Sean can even hold the camera.

Dana and Phil are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. They also have a wonderful young son and Dana has a baby daughter.  I hope they can mend their broken lives.  I’m rooting for them.

Jewish Prisoners, A Startling Concept

November 14, 2008

Teshuva is a Judaic concept of redemption and return to God and one’s essential self. As Rabbi Mark Borovitz a former prisoner, who now runs the amazing Beit T’Shuvah states, “Teshuva was put into the world, because God knew that humans would get lost and make mistakes. God knew that we would need a way back.” Rabbi Borovitz should know. He’s the living embodiment of someone who experienced redemption, underwent a transformation and continues to do Teshuva everyday.

TESHUVA (RETURN) is a documentary fim-in-progress about three generations of two Jewish families, and each family has members who are or have been Jewish prisoners.  When I tell people I’m making a film about Jewish prisoners, most people think I’m making a film about the Holocaust. The fact that there are Jews who currently reside in our nation’s prisons is a startling concept. Jewish prisoners are a hidden, isolated and ostracized segment of our nation’s Jewish population. However,  Jews can no longer be ostriches. We are our brothers keepers.  Ignoring Jewish prisoners and their stigmatized families diminishes us as people.

We tend to define people at their worst moments. People are not all black or white. We are many shades of grey. We grow and change and are capable of mending our brokeness. We all have the capacity to experience redemption and undergo a transformation. It is my hope that the documentary film TESHUVA (RETURN) will expand peoples consciousness and change the way we view one another and ourselves.

Rhonda Moskowitz, Producer/Director

Filming Jewish Prisoners Who Have Taken A Life- Part I

February 2, 2012

I’ve been filming Jewish prisoners on and off for ten years and their contradictory, complicated natures have turned everything I’ve known about people inside out and upside down. Jews are locked up for a variety of crimes, but the Jews who have committed murder have blown my mind the most.

One Jewish murderer I filmed was Dr. Charles Friedgood a.k.a. “Doc,” a successful Long Island surgeon who murdered his wife. The comedian, Chris Rock, once joked, “If you ain’t thought of murder, you ain’t been in love.” However, the murder of Sophie (Davidowitz) Friedgood was no joking matter to the couple’s five Yeshiva educated children. I filmed “Doc” inside Sing Sing making charoset for the prison’s Passover Seder. It was hard to reconcile his grandfatherly, charming demeanor with his being a ruthless sociopath.

I became quite fond of another locked up Jew, an upper middle class business professional, married with children. He felt betrayed by his best friend and business partner, whom he believed had stolen a lot of money from him, bought a gun and shot him four times. This Jewish prisoner’s compassion and great sense of humor belied the murderous impulse that lurked in his soul. He could have been any father at my child’s Jewish Day School.

There is murder and then there is murder. The reasons and circumstances each man committed murder are completely different. However, the end results are the same — lives taken from their loved ones and families ruined.

Both men were upper middle class and professionally successful before they committed murder. One– a husband, father and doctor, the other a husband, father and businessman. How I look at people has been forever changed.


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