Emma Dubin (pictured left) and Benjamin Luks-Morgan (pictured right) are second-year rabbinical students at HUC/New York. During the High Holidays this year they led services for people who are incarcerated at Rikers Island. Learn about their experience below.
How did you both get involved with leading services at Rikers Island?
Emma: Rabbi Hilly Haber ‘19 is an HUC alum and the Director of Social Justice Organizing and Education at Central Synagogue. She sent out an email over the summer asking for volunteers interested in leading High Holy Day services at city jails. At Rikers Island there are about ten facilities, and in the past people from all facilities gathered for shared High Holy Day services. Due to Covid this year they asked for many more volunteers so that each facility could have its own service. We are very grateful for Rabbi Haber and Central Synagogue for organizing this and we used the Central Synagogue machzor.
Benjamin: We were both at Middlebury’s Hebrew program over the summer so we were together when Emma saw the announcement and we had this sense that we wanted to do it together.
What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects?
Benjamin: The most challenging aspect, but also the most rewarding aspect, was navigating a liturgy about forgiveness, punishment, and making right for our wrongs, in a room where the people are dealing much more intimately with questions of punishment and making right for wrongs on a daily basis. They are also potentially dealing with questions about where God and spirituality fit into this lived reality. Something I really struggled with is “Who am I to bring this to this space?” In the end, it didn’t matter who I was, because what mattered was that for these individuals there was access to this liturgy which wrestles with very real issues in their lives.
Emma: The logistics were hard. Our prayer books didn’t make it to the facilities where we had services. Some services started hours late, so people who wanted to attend couldn’t, because you don’t have control of your time in jail. And it was hard not having a cantor! A cantorial presence would have definitely enhanced the services, musically and spiritually; Ben and I aren’t singers and handling all the music ourselves was a challenge. The most rewarding part was participants’ gratitude for the liturgy and for the demarcation of time, the creation of sacred time that the holidays are. As we were leaving, one man turned to Ben and said, “Thank you so much for teaching me.” We hadn’t thought about leading the service as a teaching opportunity but seeing it received this way was very meaningful.
Benjamin: There was a woman at Kol Nidre who came up to me after avinu malkeinu to ask what these two words mean, because the prayer’s translation kept the Hebrew words avinu malkeinu with the rest in English. I said it means our father, our king, our parent, our sovereign, or however you want to frame it, and she said “This really means a lot, thank you for that.” As I was leaving there was a guard putting her back into an intense series of restraints. For me the question of “What do you provide in a place of dignity?” means that you are not there to be the enforcer, the judge, or part of the wholesale system that they are in the full weight of. You are there to bring a liturgy that I deeply believe provides a framework of dignity.
Emma: When designing the services, we thought intentionally about correctional facility religious services as a window of dignity. In religious space the correctional system power structures can be suspended to allow the emergence of an I-Thou relationship — that’s not an insignificant thing in these settings. I think we came out of the experience with a deeper confidence in the liturgy, trusting that the High Holiday liturgy can stand on its own. We’re not the defenders of Jewish tradition so much as conduits to help people access Jewish tradition.
Benjamin: And that is something we have the capability to do beyond the standard places you would think of providing this text.
Emma: There are Jews everywhere, and people seeking Judaism everywhere.
Benjamin: And they deserve access to this powerful liturgy as much as anyone.
How do you feel HUC has prepared you for this work?
Benjamin: The Liturgy courses we took during our first year really changed the way I thought about what is happening in these texts and prayer spaces. Having that class, even though it was about weekly Shabbat prayer and not the High Holidays, gave me this base to pull from.
Emma: I’m thinking of classes we took with Dr. Gary Zola ‘81, ‘92 about the lay origins of the Reform Movement; for example, the Reformed Society of Israelites in Charleston, South Carolina, and their powerful ownership of Jewish tradition. That Movement history really inspires me. If the congregational consensus is that people want more English, or to sing their favorite melodies, that’s more important than anything the rabbi wants to sermonize on. There is a problem that there are not many liberal Jewish clergy in jails and prisons. I was really glad that we could be a strong, authentic, Reform presence.
How can others become involved in this work?
Benjamin: Central Synagogue is leading spiritual and social justice work around the criminal justice system. If you are not in NYC, consider how you can work with your synagogue and Jewish communal organizations in your local area.
How would you describe HUC in one word?
Anything else you want to add?
Benjamin: There is a Ministry department at Rikers Island with a few chaplains who we worked with. One of the chaplains that we met said, “You might be attracted to this work because what you want to do is reform the system through your work, but you’re not going to reform the system. Your job is to show up and provide a spiritual space.” Some of our timing was a little eerie. During Rosh Hashanah an individual died in custody while we were there. During Kol Nidre was when the city council hearing on the Rikers system was happening. Something I’m walking away with is how the individuals in these spaces deeply need access to spirituality, a place with dignity, and a place to be and sit, just a quiet space. I think the chaplain was right, but I also was surprised at how powerful providing that space in and of itself felt.
Emma: As a New Yorker, it was hard but meaningful for me to visit Rikers Island — a place I’ve heard so much about — and meet people incarcerated there. I’m so glad that we were able to go; I think it was an experience that will make me a stronger future Jewish clergy person and a better citizen.