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.

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  1. rabbi arthur segal Says:

    shalom fivel ben avraham:
    take it my day, one minute if needed, at a time.
    every moment remeber to put you life and will into the hands of Ha Shem. He will never fail you.
    I have never seen a person fail who has sincerely followed the steps of Jewish Spiritual Renewal…Ba’al Teshuvah.
    The Gates of Repentance are ALWAYS open.
    Rabbi Arthur Segal

  2. gail Says:

    I am truely touched by your words, Philip. I can only dream that the thoughts and wisdom you hold will touch my daughter and your son and lead them to a higher spirit.

  3. Rabbi Menachem Katz Says:

    The Aleph Institute donated the Tefillin that Phillip used at the Pinellas County jail

    • returnfilm Says:

      It’s great that you can read directly how meaningful your work is, Rabbi Katz. For readers who don’t know, the Aleph Institute is the major national advocacy organization for Jewish prisoners. Rabbi Menachem Katz is the man in charge of tending to the needs of our country’s incarcerated Jews and has tirelessly dedicated his life to working with this hidden and ostracized population. In many cases, the only connection to Judaism for Jewish prisoners is through Aleph. Rabbi Katz has single handedly, been instrumental in transforming lives. He goes into prisons himself, and sends rabbis and Yeshiva students into prisons. Aleph is stretched incredibly thin, because the need for their services is so high, and most American Jews ignore the needs of their fellow Jewish prisoners. I would like readers to know that Rabbi Katz visited one of the people in my film, Martin Grossman*, a Jew on Death Row, last Hanukkah. I hope to be able to film a visit between Rabbi Katz and Martin, in order for audiences to see a glimpse of the amazing Rabbi Katz in action.

      *Note: Martin and Philip are first cousins.

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