My Process of T'shuvah
I have been incarcerated for 30 years, serving a 75-years-to-life sentence for being a getaway driver in a robbery in which three people – two policemen and a Brinks guard – were killed. Each one of those three men went to work that morning, expecting to come back to their wives and children. I left an 11-month-old daughter that day, falsely promising to be back. My life in prison has been, to a great extent, defined by my coming to grips with the pain and losses I am responsible for, and my efforts to atone and build a life rooted in remorse, repair, and reverence for all life.
I did not start out that way. During my trial and in my first years in prison, I was defiant and blind to the damage I’d done to others and was doing to myself. Then, about five years into my sentence, I finally recognized that I was lost. Who was I? What did I feel about what I’d done? What and who really mattered to me?
I did not say, “I’m on a spiritual journey.” It was a choice to begin to become a person and to take responsibility for my choices. Now I can recognize the spiritual aspects of my questions and my methods. When I got out of solitary housing unit (SHU), I decided that I wanted to go to Jewish services. Not primarily because I wanted to become religious, but because as I started to say, “Who am I?” one of the things that felt intrinsic was my Jewish identity.
Rabbi Fine, who was our rabbi for almost two decades, was the perfect rabbi for me at that time because he was a scholar who encouraged biblical study and a diversity of views. We were a rambunctious, intellectual group of women, and our services became a place where people discussed and debated issues that arose from the Bible – which is to say just about everything we encounter in life.
I found comfort in the biblical narratives, which contained all the same life-and-death issues that I faced, and were peopled by characters as imperfect as myself. I came to recognize how my long-denied needs for ritual and community had been a driving force in my involvement in political movements.
When I first began to reckon with the carnage of my crime, I was overwhelmed with guilt. My reaction was to say: I blew it. There is no redemption. People who I was close to – like Sister Elaine, the director of the Children’s Center – pushed me to see that I could either hold onto the guilt of what I had done, or I could take responsibility for what I could do in the here and now, and that started with my daughter.
Judaism gave me a structure and a language to understand what I was struggling to do in terms of working to repair, beginning with rebuilding my relationship to my child and family. I had to apologize, to look at the ways I had let myself be driven rather than taking responsibility for my actions and to rebuild myself on my terms. I began to study and understand the concept of T’shuvah, which means “turning” and “returning.”
When we do wrong and we harm others, we create a rent in the world (fabric of the society). T’shuvah – redemption – involves recognizing the wrong, acknowledging it, apologizing, reaching out to those we’ve harmed. Our apology has to include reparative action, both in terms of the needs of others and repair of ourselves, so that we will never repeat that wrong. Then, ultimately, the community recognizes that the tear is only healed by that renewed person coming back into the community.
Judaism’s rituals of atonement helped provide me with a context to begin to respond to my paralyzing guilt. My father died on Christmas Day in 1988; the next fall, I participated in our High Holy Day services, which culminate with Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. As part of the rituals, we light memorial candles for family members that have died and say kaddish.
It was the first time I really had done this ritual with a full sense of commitment. I lit the candle and said the prayer, and thought about my father being the first person who came to see me in the county jail, and how he screamed at me for what I’d done. As I felt my loss and grief, I finally allowed myself to think of those three fathers who were killed, whose children were growing up without them, whose wives no longer had them. As I prayed, I spoke their names aloud. I remember asking myself: Do I have the right to pray for them? I wept as I felt the human toll of so much loss, and my own intimate relationship to that.
So that ritual allowed me to really feel and begin to address the humanity of what I’d done wrong and what I felt responsible for. I opened up to the pain of others. I am grateful for the rituals of atonement, for giving me a way into that process. Guilt can keep us frozen and useless to ourselves and others. I had a responsibility to climb out of that black hole of guilt and to relate to the people who continue to live with the consequences of my actions, including my daughter, and nine children, three wives, and an entire community.
The teachings and rituals of Judaism have helped me be more present to myself and to those with whom I have a relationship. It has helped me open up to relationships and life, to be of use and fully engaged. I have also gained enormously from other faith traditions and practices, particularly a yoga and meditation practice.
I was fortunate to serve my first 20 years in a prison that was headed by Superintendent Elaine Lord. Her philosophy was that being in a prison is our punishment for our crimes, but the prison is not an instrument of punishment. The prison is a community in which everyone who lives and works in it has a role. Everyone has to make a choice about who they want to be in this community. This philosophy gave many of us the chance to work productively and make contributions to this community, our families, and the outside community.
I work with young mothers who live with their babies in a special nursery program, and I raise and train service dogs who are paired with wounded veterans. I helped develop a privately-funded college program and use my training as a chaplain in my informal work with generations of young women coming into the system, drawing on my own experience to encourage compassion, respect, nonviolence, and hope.
I do not feel like my T’shuvah is completed. For one, while I have publicly apologized to the victims of my crime, I deeply desire to apologize personally, as an opening to dialogue. And I hope to one day heal the tear in my family and my community’s fabric through being released back into the community.
Judy Clark is hoping that, one day, a governor of the State of New York will grant her clemency. For more information and to find out how to support her, contact her lawyer, Sara Bennett, by e-mail by clicking here. To see more of Judy Clark’s writings and learn more about her story, visit judithclark.org.
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