"You don't have to complete the task, but neither are you excused from undertaking it."
Why become a prison chaplain? People often ask. Before I started this work, I was as afraid of criminals in prison as much as anyone else. Since then, I have learned that I should be more afraid of the ones outside of prison.
The short answer is that I was asked, literally. My predecessor as Jewish chaplain for the federal prisons was relocating and asked if I would be interested. Prison chaplaincy had been in the back of my mind for a while, so I said yes. Since I started, I have learned so much; that those of us who have never experienced prison should regularly thank God that our mistakes and misdeeds have never been so dreadful that they landed us in prison; that they were not so serious that they could never be repented or undone and that they haven't prevented us from having useful, productive and even happy lives.
The people I see in prisons are first and foremost, just people. Yes, there are some who should never get out. But many are repentant and are wasting away being unproductive. The 'skills' one learns being a prisoner are not useful in society at large: how to tell someone what he wants to hear, to be suspicious of everyone and to take advantage of every loop-hole.
Society is not just those who look and think like us. It is also those who are different: who have done wrong, are mentally ill, very sick, or elderly. It is also those who make us uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves.
Let us have a hard look at what we really believe. At the high Holydays, Jews focus on T'shuva-turning away from actions that don't reflect our best selves. If we can believe that each of us is able to change, can we believe it for others?
Even if we find it hard to be compassionate, it is enlightened self-interest to work for the successful re-integration of prisoners. They are part of society, they will be returned. We should want them rehabilitated and returned to society so that they can be productive and contributing citizens.
I am often asked what Judaism is all about. There are plenty of different answers, but I tend to reflect that it is not about what you believe, but about what you do...it is our job to repair the world, tikkun olam, even if we can only touch on one tiny corner of it. As the sage wrote in Pirkei Avot: "You don't have to complete the task, but neither are you excused from undertaking it."