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October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul, 5776
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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.


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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



PATH TO JUDAISM

Arenberg is very upfront about his first step on his path to internalized Judaism.  When he first entered the county jail system awaiting trial, he realized that the kosher diet had better food than the non-kosher.  The twist was, in order to qualify for the kosher food he had to publicly identify as a Jew.  He also was expected to attend the weekly Torah portion classes.

He enjoyed learning with the county jail chaplain, Rabbi Ernie Michel, a true light amidst the darkness. Michel gave Arenberg books,  such as Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petaled Rose.  Arenberg warmly recalls discussing questions like whether Judaism is a religion of the heart or of the head with Rabbi Michel.  Thinking about the Zohar and the Talmud provided intellectual meat for this otherwise starving inmate.

He remained in the county jail for a relatively long time – three and a half years.  During that time, Arenberg drew on skills developed in his earlier life as a tenants rights advocate, and he began doing legal work for himself and other prisoners.  He became a highly visible prisoner within the system, one referred to as “the Jewish prison lawyer.”

The other significance to Arenberg’s extended stay in county jail was that he was there long enough to go through the entire Torah during his weekly parsha sessions.  It was the first time he had ever read the Bible; he found it immensely interesting and intellectually stimulating.  It was something he wanted to continue.

LIFE IN A SUPER MAX PRISON

After Arenberg’s conviction and sentencing, he was shipped off to a super max facility where he “almost immediately had problems.”  One of the many differences between county jail and a super max state prison, is that in the latter are housed prisoners with long prison sentences.  They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  To cope with a shrunken universe, a whole different version of reality arises, one in which each ethnic group has their own turf, their own power, their own social system and strata.  The unspoken rules are very strictly enforced.

After Arenberg was run off the yard and beaten severely, prison officials did for Arenberg the only thing they could to protect him.  They put him in “protective custody,” which means solitary confinement.  Altogether Arenberg spent 15 months of his life in solitary confinement.  However, the length of time one can be in solitary is strictly limited.  That meant he would be released periodically, whereupon he would be beaten not only for being a Jew, but now also because there is a stigma attached to being in “pc” – protective custody. And then back in he would go.

Arenberg, however, was not only grateful for the respite from physical danger, he also used the enforced silence to write a book (his first novel, he said it needs polishing, maybe he’ll get back to it), and he wrote the article that eventually wound up in the SPLC journal.  It was also a finalist in the 2012 Yale Law Journal Prison Writing Contest.

When asked how the other prisoners knew he was Jewish, Arenberg laughed. “If my name was Moishe Himmelfarb, they would not realize I was Jewish, but they recognized any name ending in ‘berg’ as Jewish.”

In a world where Arenberg had little currency, he created his own. He continued with his legal research and work, both for other prisoners and himself.  In fact, he recently won a court victory in an action against the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, over failure to provide Arenberg with necessary care for an urgent medical condition. He has worked on civil rights litigation, habeas corpus claims and Arizona criminal law.

The Jewish Press asked Arenberg whether he ever does legal work for the Skinheads.  Arenberg had explained that although the Aryan Brotherhood hate Jews, they are not as ideologically driven as are the Skinheads for whom dealing with a Jew is simply beyond the pale.  Almost.

“Yes, I do legal work for Skinheads.  It’s a matter of self-preservation.  But there is absolutely no conversation beyond the legal discussions.”

When Arenberg is finally freed in November, he plans to continue with the expertise he developed in prison, both with respect to the law and prisoners’ rights, but also criminal justice reform – he certainly will have had more first hand experience than most other people involved in the fields.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com


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