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A Jew Grows in Prison

There is no doubt that the David Arenberg who will emerge from prison in approximately five months is a different, a better and a more spiritual human being than the one who went in more than 12 years ago. But the losses and the pain have been profound.

David Arenberg lost many things during his nearly 12 years in prison, but he found a connection to Judaism.

David Arenberg lost many things during his nearly 12 years in prison, but he found a connection to Judaism.
Photo Credit: Lori Lowenthal Marcus

David Arenberg has been many things – a tenants’ rights activist, a University of Chicago student, a deliveryman, a coke addict, a slum housing receiver, a swindler, a drug dealer and a prisoner.  But now he’s become a Torah aficionado, and is organizing the first Torah study group in a state prison in Arizona.  And soon, after nearly 12 years in prison, he’ll be free.

This reporter only recently became aware of an exceptionally compelling article written by Arenberg that was published in several places, including a 2009 report of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In that article, Arenberg describes the peculiar position he found himself in, as the only Jew in a state prison in Arizona, surrounded by white supremacists and various minorities, every single one of whom rejected and despised him because of his religion.

Arenberg’s loathsome status as a Jew placed him at the very bottom of the prison social strata.  He was not permitted to eat with any of the various ethnicities – black, American Indian, Mexican, Americans born of Mexican descent (mutual and virulent enmity), each of which dined it its own self-imposed ghetto, and he sure as heck was not allowed to eat with the whites.  Why? He explains,

Jews, as we all know, are not white but imposters who don white skin and hide inside it for the purpose of polluting and taking over the white race. The skinheads simply can’t allow me to eat with them: that would make them traitors of the worst kind — race traitors! But my milky skin and pasty complexion, characteristic of the Eastern European Ashkenazi, make it impossible for me to eat with other races who don’t understand the subtleties of my treachery and take me for just another ‘wood [poor rural white]. So the compromise is that I may sit at certain white tables after all the whites have finished eating.

His article is a must-read, both because it provides insight into a prison culture of southwestern America that resembles a nightmarish throwback to nazi-era Jew-hatred, combined with prison brutality, as experienced by someone utterly alone – there were no other Jews, no support system, and no way out.

But as vivid a vision as Arenberg paints, our interest at The Jewish Press was unquenched – how and why did Arenberg finally turn to Judaism while in prison? He was a completely secular Jew; his parents spurned any form of religious observance or rite.  They sent David to “socialist summer camp where I was taught that the most important spiritual value is “‘thou shalt never cross a picket line.’”

After a search that took days, and a request process that took longer, The Jewish Press finally scored an interview with Arenberg.

The biggest surprise was that despite the pain and loss and isolation, Arenberg comes across as a self-confident man with a belief in his intellectual abilities and an eagerness to rejoin society as a reoriented human being.  He was reluctant to use the word “rehabilitated” because he vehemently rejects the idea that prison is what rehabilitated him, or at least that it did so intentionally, with any successful effort or inclination.

There is no doubt that the David Arenberg who will emerge from prison in approximately five months is a different, a better and a more spiritual human being than the one who went in more than 12 years ago.

But the losses and the pain have been profound.

After his conviction and sentencing, Arenberg’s wife divorced him.  He’s not bitter, he said “‘for worse’ does not include long prison sentences.”  Both his mother and his father died while he was in prison, and he never had the chance to reconcile with them.

He’s never had children, and now he’s 57.

VICTOR FRANKL PHILOSOPHY

But Arenberg believes that the past 11 years have been the most productive – certainly the most constructive – of his life.  That is because he ascribes to the philosophy of the well-known psychiatrist who spent three years in Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl. Arenberg paraphrased Frankl’s philosophy, “you can’t choose the circumstances you find yourself in, but you can choose how you deal with them.”

Of course it is not true that Arenberg was blameless for ending up as the lone Jew in a prison populated by violent, vicious anti-Semitics, but it most definitely is true that he responded to the circumstances with astonishing resilience and a unique capacity to develop valued skills.  Those qualities rescued him from any number of cataclysmic mental and physical horrors beyond the ordinary ones faced by people doing serious prison time in a state prison filled with seething hatred and violence.

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.


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10 Responses to “A Jew Grows in Prison”

  1. Carl ToersBijns says:

    I think this is an exaggerated version of racism against Jews inside SW prisons. In my 25 years of prison experience Kosher inmates have not trouble eating among others as long as they follow the race card in seating, association, pecking order and hierarchy of power and control. Google me and you will see I have SW prison experience and when I read this I found it odd and somewhat suspicious that it was elevated to the degree it was when in fact, this is not a major issue unless the matter is brought to the forefront and draws heat on a particular group or race. Then it becomes political and bad things happen.

  2. Carl ToersBijns says:

    I am sorry but I find the dynamics in this man's prison adjustment to be red flags all over and suspect he may have become a problematic inmate to the admin and brought the heat on himself through his own actions. Call me naïve but there is more to the story than is being told here. Maybe the reporter should have done a balance check and see how much truth was told and how much was fabricated, manipulated and exaggerated. In the thousands of Jewish offenders I dealt with, this story just doesn't fit the pattern of my experience and I suspect many other administrators in the SW.

  3. Lori Lowenthal Marcus says:

    sorry you think that. I did do research and found Arenberg's story quite believable. For example: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4991738 But in any event, this article focuses on Arenberg's transformation into a self-identified Jew, and I don't understand why you think your own experience has any relevance.

  4. Lori Lowenthal Marcus says:

    sorry you think that. I did do research and found Arenberg's story quite believable. For example: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4991738 But in any event, this article focuses on Arenberg's transformation into a self-identified Jew, and I don't understand why you think your own experience has any relevance.

  5. Lori Lowenthal Marcus says:

    sorry you think that. I did do research and found Arenberg's story quite believable. For example: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4991738 But in any event, this article focuses on Arenberg's transformation into a self-identified Jew, and I don't understand why you think your own experience has any relevance.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Why are Whites routinely called "White supremacists?" Why didn't you say "Black supremacists," or "Asian supremacists?" Or better still you should have just dropped the word 'supremacist.'

  7. Anonymous says:

    Another point I would say is being in jail is "no holds barred" situation. Anyone being in jail is bad! Not just Jews!

  8. I don't often read human interest stories, because they tend not to be particularly deep, and are therefore rarely actually interesting. But this was truly fascinating — a very thoughtful portrait of an actual human being, in all his monstrosity, and failure, and all his glory. Thank you.

    And thank you for the link to the story of Rabbi Michel. You are surely right — what a Kiddush HaShem.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I really don't like how one of my comments was deleted. There seems to be a freedom of speech problem with the Jewish Press. What I said was perfectly reasonable. It's sad and frustrating when you tell people why certain things happen and you know you are right but the freedom of speech censors come in! Even Stormfront allows Jews to tell their views on that webpage! I remember even on Jerusalem Post or Haaretz they have a lot of free speech on there. So thanks to those newspapers!

  10. Wow David gave you quite the snow job on the writer of this article than he did on the dope dealers he used to cop from. David has not been in prison for over 13 years. He did not spend 3.5 years continuously in the county jail. I, as his ex-wife, can tell you that I did not divorce him after his "conviction and sentencing"! The problem was that David never cleaved to his wife and rather stayed married to crack-cocaine so that when it came time to decide whether to stand with the wife or to side with his brother, David chose his brother. Research your facts! I am a devout believer and when David was given a choice to serve God or serve time, he chose to serve time. I do hope that David is changed. He should embrace his relationship with God and not overthink or over intellectualize it, as he does most everything he allows to pass through his reasoning. David should check out azshabbat.org and visit the congregation that is headed by Rabbi Jack Zimmerman in Scottsdale, AZ upon his release. He would find a good person to call in times of temptation and trouble.

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