Little ditty about Jack and Diane: Defund the Police, Restorative Justice and the Jewish Community

When Judah approaches Joseph in this past week’s portion, Joseph realizes that the time for playing games is over, the time for dissembling, for denying are all over. It’s time to get real, to clear the room and say “I am your brother Joseph, is my father still alive?” This is the time for the Jewish community to stop dithering around defunding the police and say we are your brothers and sisters, our solidarity is still alive if we work on it, what can we do?

The demand of defunding the police is embedded in a vision of society which is based in care and not caging. That is, society, and the communities that together make up that society must invest their resources—resources which are now invested in policing and caging—in programs of care—mental health, jobs creation, drug rehabilitation, restorative justice, social work, health care, education—which will lead away from caging. The end goal is to have a society in which caging is a relic of an awful past. This does not mean that there will no longer be any violence or theft. It does mean that society will have gotten to a place where these cases will be way fewer and farther between, and that repairing the harms that these transgressions cause will center the experience of the victim and be a way for the offender to take responsibility and make amends, or “do sorry” as Danielle Sered says.

This vision is only utopian if we think it will happen overnight with the wave of a magic wand and not entail hard work across society. It will take a whole society approach. One part of that approach will be to make restorative justice the culture which permeates our educational institutions from their earliest years. This is where the Jewish community can step in, in a big way.

We, as a Jewish community, already have a form of restorative justice on the books. It is called tshuvah and is often translated as repentance. However, it is much more than that. While repentance is understood as sincere regret or remorse, tshuvah is a process of changing one’s life so that when confronted with a similar situation one will make different choices. Moreover, the process of tshuvah necessitates an engagement with the victim of the offense. In this engagement a way of repair must be worked out between offender and victim. (Maimonides Laws of Repentance Chapter Two)

This is a sophisticated process of what is now called restorative justice. A restorative justice process places the victim at the center, and the goal of the exercise is to repair what was broken, physically and psychologically. There is also a recognition that the offender is not totally defined by this one act and should be afforded the opportunity to overcome and hopefully repair the damage that comes from this one act. 

Tshuvah is usually, and understandably, brought out in day schools and religious schools around the beginning of the year when the High Holidays are taught. However, some time between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, tshuvah is put back on the shelf and the lessons turn to etrog and lulav and impermanent dwellings. This is unfortunate. Tshuvah and its contemporary equivalent is a culture and a way of living. Rather than being a lesson plan it should be the overarching framework of a school. When little Jack snatches the toy car from little Diane in kindergarten, the reaction of the adults should be to convene a circle in which Jack and Diane can talk about what happened. The circle creates space for Diane to talk about how having the truck grabbed from her hand made her feel. Jack can talk about what happened leading up to the truck grabbing incident. How, perhaps he was upset about something else which he had not had the opportunity to talk about. Every situation is different and having the students and teachers there makes them invested in the process and responsible to Jack and Diane as Jack becomes accountable to the circle for repairing the harm to Diane.

If this is inculcated in kindergarten and the early grades, then this becomes the go to reflex when a student cheats on a test, cuts class, or punches another student. They can all be dealt with in a restorative justice circle or mediation. Again, this is not to say that it is easy, but there are resources and it is doable. 

There are two political goals here. First, there is the immediate goal of having a more just environment in the school. An environment in which all students feel invested in the “culture of caring” of the school. 

The larger goal is that when students move on to the “real world,” they take with them the learning that punishment is not the way to repair a harm that has been caused. This is the basis of the revolution. If now it is obvious that the proper reaction to Jack’s taking the car from Dianne is some form of punishment (which we call “consequences” and then, later, this is translated into caging), it can also become obvious that the proper reaction is to sit in a circle and decide as a group how to repair the harm. 


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