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Shofar Behind Bars

The Talmud discusses whether one can fulfill the obligation to hear the shofar while inside a cistern since the sound of the shofar must come directly, not as an echo.

Shofar blower Michael Chusid knows what the inside of a “cistern” looks like. For several years, on Rosh Hashana he took his shofar into the depths of the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Prison.

If this piece of Talmud is interpreted on a deeper level, that can be quite a challenge when blowing a shofar inside a concrete bunker at what is described as the “Largest Prison in the Free World,” because the walls echo with the sound of so many of society’s failings, plus the fears and uncertainty facing the woeful residents.

Yet all the Rosh Hashana messages about teshuva — that a genuine turnaround is really attainable — come into much greater focus when discussed with someone who has seen the darkness of violence, addiction, crime and incarceration.

Yossi Carron, a chaplain at the facility, used the themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to help the men understand that forgiveness is possible and that by taking responsibility for their actions, their future does not have to be determined by their pasts.

“The residents recognized that I was in the prison by choice,” said Chusid. “It was meaningful for them to know that they had not been forgotten by or completely severed from the outside world. Some had never heard a shofar before and were trying to reconnect with their Jewish heritage to help them have faith in their future.”

One inmate told Chusid the sound of shofar was seared into his heart, enabling him to tap into Rosh Hashana and the sound of the shofar throughout the year.

As the guards were preparing to strip search him before the brief visit, he told Chusid, “If I can keep hearing the shofar, it will remind me of what [Carron] told us. Then, maybe, this will be my last time in prison.”

 

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