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,



 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.


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.


November 15, 2008

Notes from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

Rosol, the extraordinary woman who is Philip’s mother and Martin Grossman’s aunt

We walked into a tragedy when we first filmed our families. Myra, the aunt of Philip, our main character, and the sister of Rosol, Phil’s mother, had unexpectedly passed away two days before any of us had met. There was a 20 year age difference between Myra and Rosol, but the two sisters were very close.  Myra’s son, Martin, is on Death Row. Myra, who was in her early 70s, came to live with Rosol and her husband Paul, two months before she died. Paul had converted his and Rosol’s garage into a large bedroom just for Myra and two months later she was gone.

Rosol opened up her life and her big heart to us, which still to this day, deeply touches me.  We were complete strangers who had flown in to film her and her family and Myra’s death was a big loss. The situation was also complicated by the fact that Rosol’s son, Phil, had stolen from his Aunt Myra to support his Oxycontin habit and in a couple of days, Phil was being released from jail.  Rosol has experienced more tragedy and heartbreak than one person can possibly endure. She has an expansive heart, great spirit,  a wonderful sense of humor and I love her.