I had the extreme pleasure yesterday of hanging with 300 or so of my best friends at the San Francisco Feast of Jewish Learning, a fantastic event (with the predictable exception of the stalker weirdos who flock to “young adult” Jewish events.) I got to learn with Daniel Boyarin and schmooze with lots of other Bay Area smartypantses like Rabbi Josh Strulowitz, Jhos Singer and David Henkin.
I went to a session called Jews in the Big House, hosted by J.T. Gottlieb and Dr. Debbie Findling, who was one of his teachers at San Quentin. J.T. served a life sentence of 25 years in famous prisons like Folsom and San Quentin for driving the getaway car in a murder when he was a teenager. He was denied parole 4 times by 3 governors and finally was released just this past September by the Governator. He shared his story of convinction, rage and ultimately rehabilitation through education. Quoting from a PJA story:

“I call it an epiphany from G-d,” he said. “I believe that G-d asked me to do good deeds. I saw the opportunity to rehabilitate myself.”

Gottlieb was able to find a niche for himself in the tough prison population by becoming the go-to guy for prisoners who wanted to better themselves through education, to “stay on the team rather than sit on the bench fuming.” He sheparded prisoners through the pathetic offerings of the prison system, gaining himself a college degree and pushing many others into school and vocational programs. Now, he’s on the trying to make a future for himself on the lecture circuit, talking about the importance of bettering yourself and keeping kids out of trouble.
How Jewish. Here’s a guy who’s been out of prison for 5 months after basically growing up there, and what is he doing? Speaking at the JCC. He held up a hamantaschen and told us that it will be basically his first Purim since he was a little kid and thanked us deeply for the special little cookie. He is so excited to begin creating a living Jewish identity after having to hide it in prison, a breeding ground for neo-Nazi, white supremacist hate groups.
If you have any connection to organizations that work with at-risk youth, J.T. Gottlieb is extremely eager to come talk to them about the reality of crime and punishment. Post your contact information in the comments and I will pass it along.