Posts Tagged ‘jewish film’

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.

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 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
Phone: 305-864-5553
Fax: 305-864-5675

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.


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.


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


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)


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

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.”

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.”