Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

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

March 25, 2010

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.

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)”

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.