Twenty years ago, on the eve of my conversion to Judaism and my marriage, I addressed a letter to my Rabbi explaining why I chose to become Jewish. My Rabbi, Leon Kahane, was a holocaust survivor, a police chaplain, as well as my spiritual leader even before my conversion. In my work as a police officer I had the honor of spending countless hours with him.
He tended not just to the Jewish community, but to all those he came in contact with. Despite the many losses he suffered, Rabbi said his experience resolved him to make the world better. He made me a better police officer by reminding me that compassion, justice and redemption are tenets not just of religion, but should always be goals of law enforcement.
His influence grounded me in my belief that I was a peace officer, truly serving my community rather than engaging today’s manifestation of policing that overemphasizes morality policing through our failed drug policy. Riots in Ferguson and Baltimore are reflections of the deep schism between law enforcement and the communities we serve. This schism has been made worse by the way the Drug War has blurred the police mission – in an attempt to remove drugs from our neighborhoods, drug laws have made the consequences of drug use far worse and removed countless people from their families.
In 2010, I joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the War on Drugs. In an article I wrote previously, I discussed many of the reasons why I came to understand the Drug War had failed. I watched my brother die from a drug overdose because his struggles were treated not from a public health strategy, but through the courts. I also saw many others that I contacted whose family struggles – mental health and substance abuse issues – were made demonstrably worse through criminal justice intervention.
LEAP has seen how federal grants and civil asset forfeiture laws (whereby police can take your property and use or sell it for their own benefit, even if you’re never charged with a crime) encourage police to go after drug offenders while real criminals roam free. We’ve seen people die of overdose. We’ve seen people go to prison who had no business being there. And we’ve seen that none of this has reduced drug use or addiction. In spite of more than 40 years of fighting the War on Drugs—and spending more than one trillion dollars —Americans now have access to drugs that are cheaper, more potent, and just as readily available as when the drug war started.
In my search for spirituality, I found that my pragmatism required that my faith be grounded in the here and now, and not in the hereafter. Throughout my friendship with Rabbi Kahane, he modeled how the Jewish religion helped to guide his belief that one person could make the world better through service to others. Inadvertently, I found a road back to faith that benefitted not just myself, but the community that I served as a police officer, and the community I serve now in my effort to repair the harms of the Drug War.
In the Bible, tzedekah means “righteous behavior” and is linked with justice. Throughout my career and then during my conversion, Rabbi Kahane taught me that the Jewish faith brought with it a moral obligation to others. This moral obligation to others cannot be uncoupled from G-d. This belief has demonstrated itself in the history of social justice advocacy in Judaism. Deuteronomy 16:20 states, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” and is translated as “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Bella Abzug, attorney, civil libertarian, feminist and anti-war activist once stated that her idealism and activism came from her Jewish roots. She reflected:
“Jews believe you can’t have justice for yourself unless other people have justice as well. That has motivated much of what I’ve done.”
In Judaism, Tikkun Olam is the act of safeguarding those who maybe at a disadvantage, and is also defined as repairing a broken world. My work in criminal justice and drug policy is just one aspect of my faith and spirituality that is supported through acts of tikkun olam. My faith helps to buoy my work by providing me the strength to continue to fight despite many of the frustrations and setbacks that reformers encounter. It allows me to use the lessons taught by Rabbi Kahane to shine a light on the injustice of our drug policy and to expose the attendant harms of drug enforcement practices and mass incarceration in communities of color. It allows me to engage with others members of the faith-based community who work to develop a national drug policy based on compassion and human rights.
Each year I use the holiday season to refocus my spirituality. This year though is a confluence of the first night of Hanukkah, my 20th wedding anniversary and Christmas Eve. The nexus of these three dates brings both happiness and pain. My faith demands that I continue to evolve and to appreciate not just the good, but the pain and challenges in my life as well. This Hanukkah season, as we light the Menorah to celebrate I will reflect as I do on every Jewish holiday on what it means to be a Jew.
I will think about the wisdom that Rabbi Kahane imparted to me; his inclusiveness of all races and religions, his humor, his compassion and his obligation of service to others. But most of all, I will remember that he made it clear that I must work to correct injustice in our world. Rabbi once said that no matter how long we live, it’s too brief and we must always have a goal. I have a goal, and I may die before it it’s accomplished, but my faith demands that I continue to work to restore justice to those impacted by the failures of the Drug War and the criminal justice system.