There are times in my life when being a rabbi and being a musician come together to create an opportunity to experience holiness in unexpected and profound ways. Such an opportunity came to me last Sunday, when I had the remarkable experience of performing in an interfaith concert with five other musicians and singers at the LA County Men’s Central Jail.
My long-time friend (and Performing Arts High School buddy of my wife, Didi), Rabbi Yossi Caron serves as the Jewish Chaplain for the Men’s Central Jail through his work with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. Yossi has been doing incredible pastoral work at the jail, not only for the 71 or so Jewish inmates that are there, but as an interfaith voice fighting for the individual dignity and self-worth of all who are in jail, regardless of their religion.
Rabbi Caron has made some remarkable inroads of service at the jail, including leading the first ever Friday night service this month and gaining permission to hold this week’s concert for 400 inmates from all religions and all walks of life.
Before becoming a rabbi, Yossi was a renowned singer and band leader in Los Angeles, and he brought his substantial talents to bear as the lead singer and sermonizer of this concert as well. He asked if I would be the drummer for the band and if Didi would come and sing back-up vocals as well, and it was one of the most powerful experiences of our lives.
From “Go Down Moses” to “I Believe” to a musical setting of the famous 12-Step serenity prayer, the message of the music was one of hope, faith, transcendence and personal responsibility in the midst of one of the most difficult and dehumanizing settings imaginable. It was the first time such a concert had ever been presented to the inmates, and the first time prisoners were brought together from all the different cell blocks, regardless of their alleged crimes or race or religion or language.
When we sang “Oseh Shalom,” we prayed with them for the still, small voice of God to remind them that wholeness was possible, that there is more that unites human beings than there is that divides us and that they are not powerless to transform their lives at any minute.
When we sang “Tefilat Haderech,” Debbie Friedman’s beautiful setting of a prayer for the journey, we communicated a message that said “Life is about moving forward, life is about taking the next step, life is about having the faith that what you do and say can move you one day at a time, one step at a time toward a new life.
It was a tough crowd – at least that’s what we were told before the concert. That’s what the guards who stood by hidden in the next room with full riot gear “just in case we needed extraction” told us. But that is not what we saw. What we saw, and heard and felt and experienced was a room of 400 individual longing souls, who for that hour and a half forgot their turf, put aside their gang rivalries, let go of their petty angers and rage, and actually sang with us, exploded with a standing ovation of gratefulness and humanity, and just perhaps experienced Mother’s Day this year as a reminder that even they were made in the image of God.
This week we read Emor in the Torah. It recounts the famous decree of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Our ancestors saw this passage as a reminder that we have an obligation to dispense justice equally and fairly. And as I played for those 400 prisoners this week in that unusual setting, the Torah was a reminder to me not to give up, not to rest until we find a way to teach every one in our society that they are worth of dignity and spiritual self-worth. For when they truly know that what they say, and what they do and who they are really matters, I believe we will change the world.
And oh yes, what could be cooler as a drummer, than to be in the LA County Men’s Central Jail, playing “Jail House Rock!” to 400 swinging inmates? Nothing.