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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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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

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.

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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