One of my favorite aspects of the seder is that we eat reclining. In this one move, the seder invites us to act out the release of stress from the body. The four questions tell us that on other nights we might eat sitting upright — tense — our minds on the work or hardships of the day, full of worry about what tomorrow will hold. But tonight, the freed slave experiences the psychic safety to recline, and we re-enact that sense of emotional and physical release. When my kids were little, they’d decorate their own special pillows for this purpose, which led them to nestle in to the shoulders or onto the laps of their neighbors. We’d make sure that everyone around the table had a pillow in order to fully lean on one another. This leaning on others reminds us that we’re connected, and the people around us can help hold us up.
This Passover, we think about all of the people in our country whose bodies are full of tension, who might feel alone, who are sitting in fear, or anger, or stress. We think of those traumatized by hate crimes or gun violence; we think of new refugees, immigrants in danger of deportation or those separated from their families; we think of the millions of Americans locked behind bars. And we imagine a day when all of them, every one, has the safety and the freedom to recline.
You might know that CBE’s Dismantling Racism Team has been working for two full years to address the abject injustices of New York’s criminal legal system through bail reform, discovery reform, and speedy trial reform. Below you’ll find a combined letter written with our faith partners in this work about significant recent accomplishments and what remains to be done.
You might also know that CBE has taken on the responsibility through its Refugee Task Force of helping to sponsor an asylum-seeking family. Together with HIAS we are working to find housing, vocational training, employment and childcare for a young couple from Chad and their infant son, as well as to provide them with financial counseling. A generous Park Slope resident has housed them for the past 6 months free of charge, but we are now actively searching for a new home for them, starting on June 1st. They are looking for a safe, quiet place to call home in New York City or New Jersey within a reasonable commute to midtown Manhattan, where the father works for an IT company.
On behalf of the entire clergy team — Cantor Breitzer, Rabbi Epstein, Rabbi Green, Rabbi Weider, and all of our families, I wish you a Pesach Sameach, a sweet and meaningful Passover, with lots of reclining.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner
To Our Communities,
We write to share with you the wonderful news that earlier this month the New York State Governor, Assembly, and Senate enacted historic criminal justice reform in our state. We are part of a group of New York’s largest faith-based organizations that for the past two years has worked alongside community partners toward this happy day. We have done so to seek a more just and compassionate New York State, to repair our criminal justice system, and to help end racism and mass incarceration.
Our members and allies shared strategy, traveled to Albany to meet with our elected officials, and met with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office, Governor Cuomo’s chief counsel and criminal justice staff, District Attorneys and more, to raise a moral voice on the urgent need for meaningful bail reform and pre-trial justice in New York State. On the eve of Passover and Easter, we write to you to celebrate what we have been part of winning, to be clear about that which has yet to be won, and to look into the future together.
We are taught in the Talmud that to save one single life, it is as if we have saved an entire world. That is the impact, many times over, of the bail, discovery, and speedy trial reforms that were enacted into law. When the package goes into effect on January 1, 2020, it will lead to the release and legal protection of tens of thousands of individuals, saving not just their own lives, but also their entire world, making it possible to tell new stories about who they are and who their families might be for generations to come.
Instead of languishing in a jail cell for months or years before trial just for being too poor to pay for their freedom, most individuals accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies will await their day in court at home with their families. An accused individual will not be subject to the violence, stress and degradation of Rikers Island, where just one night can destroy a life. A person will not have to take a plea deal and earn themselves a criminal record just to get out of jail. Parents will return to their children, to homework help, to presence, to hugs, to stability. A child will see her father or mother go to work every day and earn the money to provide for them food, shelter, and clothing. A family or a community will have its members together.
The new legislation guarantees that accused people will gain access to evidence in their case much earlier in the process and before they are asked to plead guilty. And it encourages, but doesn’t mandate, judges and prosecutors to expedite the often glacially slow process of justice.
We are taught in Proverbs: Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court. Here, our work is not yet done.
Our goal was to completely eliminate cash bail from New York’s criminal justice system. Yet for most people accused of violent crimes, cash bail will continue to be an option for judges to impose. And some will be eligible to be held without bail or any chance for release.
Further, the law will fall short of guaranteeing robust due process to people who may end up in jail through bail or pretrial detention decisions.
We were reminded through our work on this issue that when told of ugly allegations, it is easy to forget that a person who is accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. We were made mindful of the fact that almost half of people arrested for violent felonies in New York City see their cases dismissed entirely. And that even a person who is found guilty of committing a crime is almost always the victim of a great deal of trauma that led them to this moment. And so we choose to see this issue as we are called to – through a love for humanity and the lens of our shared traditions. As long as it is true that in New York a person who is poor and one who is wealthy can be accused of committing the same exact crime and one walks free until trial while the other sits in a jail cell for lack of resources, we will continue to struggle to end this two-tiered justice system which punishes the poor just for being poor.
We are taught in the book of Genesis that every human being is created in the image of God. In our own pews sits the victim of a crime, the accused of a crime, the perpetrator of a crime. In our own pews sit people with broken hearts, with dreams to be fulfilled or destroyed. In our own pews sits the full potential of every sacred life, all worthy of God’s love, our love, and a fair and equal treatment under the law.
And so we celebrate the tremendous victories achieved in NY’s criminal justice system which honor freedom, the presumption of innocence, and the dignity of life. And we commit ourselves to continuing our work together as people of faith toward ending wealth-based detention for all people accused of crimes, decarcerating our jails, dismantling the racism in our system, and affirming the need for a justice system that lifts up life.
In these ways, we pray that we may be witness to an end to mass incarceration in our state and ultimately in our country. May our continued work together help make visible God’s divine spark in every human being.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner and the Dismantling Racism Team, Congregation Beth Elohim
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin and the Central Synagogue in Action Leadership Team
Reverend Winnie Varghese, Trinity Church Wall Street