From Recovery to Redemption: an interview with Chaplain Adam Siegel

Last week, we talked to Chaplain Adam Siegel about his involvement in the JOIN for Justice Clergy Fellowship, and his work at Beit T’Shuvah organizing for criminal justice system reform with the broad-based interfaith organization LA Voice.  Beit T’Shuvah is both a Jewish residential treatment center in Los Angeles and a full-service congregation offering religious services, holiday celebrations and study.

Tell me a little about yourself and your work with Beit T’Shuvah.  What calls you to this work?

I’ve been involved for about 5 years, wearing two different hats.  We have a long term recovery program, where people stay between 6 months and a year, and I work individually with folks in this program.  I work with people to help them see what spiritual resources are available to help them deal with whatever issues they are dealing with.

Over the last year or so, I have also been working to develop our service and justice initiative.  Our model is a dual model: we are a residential facility but we are also a spiritual community. We run weekly services, holiday events and life cycle celebrations for both the residents and for community members. We have a congregation that includes alumni, family members, folks interested in the intersection between Judaism and recovery, and those that are looking for a different, relevant Jewish experience.  That’s the communal aspect that I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize and mobilize to work on justice issues.

What Jewish framework do you bring to your chaplaincy?

Through my work at Beit T’shuvah I’ve been able to understand that a recovery perspective gives a spiritual framework for the condition of being human.
Our Jewish tradition gives us a sense of being able to recognize the holiness within us, and instructions for how how to share this with the world.

How did the service and justice initiative develop?  Why is it central to your work?
We’ve been around for 30 years.  Our primary work is doing healing and repair work for individual souls. But the longer I’ve been around, the more I’ve been able to recognize the opportunity that recovering souls have towards repairing the world.

Over time I saw that there was a lot of opportunity here, and that historically we have done individually projects, but there hadn’t really been a concerted or coordinated effort to develop the power within this community.

Can you tell me about the work you are doing with LA Voice?

LA Voice, a PICO affiliate that does broad-based interfaith organizing, has been working on criminal justice reform–passing and implementing Prop 47, and a campaign called “Banning the Box.”

Prop 47 is a California statewide proposition that passed in Nov 014 that was geared towards the reclassification of a dozen minor felony offenses to misdemeanors, which provided for the early release of people that were incarcerated for these crimes.  The savings that the State incurred by letting people out early are directed towards restorative justice activities, recovery services, transitional re-entry programs, and mental health programs for formerly incarcerated individuals.

LA Voice was key in organizing faith communities around LA on this proposition, which passed with a significant majority across the state, and is now working hard to ensure that it is implemented correctly and that the funds are spent well on a local level.

At Beit T’shuvah, we have individuals who benefited from the passage of Prop 47, because they got out of prison early, and people who are very passionate about criminal justice reform.  At any given time, 10-15% of the 120 folks staying at Beit T’shuvah are coming out of prison, and they utilize this program as a re-entry and transition experience helping them to move into the next stage of their life.

LA Voice was eager to get us involved both as representatives of the Jewish community, and as individuals who can speak from personal experience about the significance of these reform efforts.

We are also planning to work on a lcoal campaign in the next year that would “Ban the Box” and prohibit employers from asking potential employees about felony convictions early on in the interview process.

Tell me about your experience in the Clergy Fellowship.  

As I’ve gotten more involved in organizing work in the last year, it has really energized me to be able to  see the role that my Judaism has in guiding me towards how I can contribute to the betterment of the world.  It’s so powerful to do it in an organized way where I don’t have to figure it all out by myself, and our organization doesn’t have to figure it all out by ourselves.

The Clergy Fellowship been incredibly helpful in giving me a framework for understanding how to approach justice work. This is both from the perspective of understanding larger societal issues, and also even more importantly being able to see the role that the individual as part of a collective can have in addressing some of the potential for improvement in our world.

Jeannie Appleman [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] been incredible.  I think there’s great value in being able to participate wth the other Clergy and rabbis in the cohort.  We’ve grown closer and we’ve also been able to see opportunities available to us to do collaborative work together.

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