by: Anna Kohn
As the former Director of the last freestanding synagogue over the past three-plus years, I’ve had an opportunity to witness a lot of the different Jewish movements around social justice in Detroit, but none were so close to my heart as that of December’s “Festival of Rights” sponsored by Detroit Jews for Justice.
A lot of my Jewish peers struggle with identity and purpose. Hell, even my non-Jewish peers struggle with identity and purpose. That’s the beauty of Detroit Jews for Justice. In the face of that struggle, DJJ offered me a safe space to express those social justice causes that I feel most connected to – and in the case of the “Festival of Rights,” I was so honored to be presenting a Jewish take on MY most passionate passion, prison reform. (Pirkei Avot 1:6) Yehoshua ben Perahia says “make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the benefit of the doubt.” Because what if, in Judaism’s culture of community-oriented thinking, we as Jews, had not?
The coolest thing about Judaism in Detroit is the variety of outlets that one can find for expression – social justice, ritual, communal, and spiritual. For me personally, I know where my fire burns, and in the DJJ community I find a commitment to keeping that fire burning. Still, despite how brightly it burns the unjustly incarcerated cannot see it – so it is upon us to burn our passionate fires extra brightly to reach into the cells of the men and women who thirst for our light in the deepest ways.
At the Festival of Rights, I lit my ‘prison reform candle’ for every little boy convicted of a life sentence before he came of age; for every battered woman who opted for an unthinkable sentence in favor of being killed by her attacker; for the 900 individuals eligible for parole in Michigan who have instead been tossed to the side; for every man and woman of color who has been a victim of circumstance or of so-called “truth in sentencing”—over 8,300 individuals in Michigan being held past their scheduled release dates; for every single innocent US prisoner who sits on Death Row without an execution date and without an appeal date—a state-sanctioned purgatory; for one in every five inmates diagnosed with a mental illness and sent to a correctional facility instead of a medical facility; for two-thirds of the state’s prison population with convicted of crimes related to a person’s drug addiction…
…and for every single kind soul I’ve met in my years of working in prisons across the nation who has renewed my hope, encouraged my faith, and have kept my unquiet, impatient, and outspoken flame of justice burning for those who are silenced, slighted, sacrificed, and gone… but never, ever forgotten.
Because of DJJ under Rabbi Alana Alpert’s leadership, I feel at-home in a Jewish social justice setting, encouraged to continue speaking out, reaching out, and extending beyond my comfort zone to bring attention and light to some of our darkest challenges. As Detroit Jews for Justice, we will NOT let the light go out—now, or in our foreseeable future. The courage and might of DJJ members is palpable, powerful, and inspiring beyond measure. Thank you, DJJ, for making this space available to Detroit, to Jews, and to me!
Anna Kohn is the former Director (2012-2016) of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the last freestanding synagogue in the city of Detroit. Today, Anna leads the Associate Support Platform development for the innovative RecoveryPark, an ambitious project that matches underutilized land and talent in our region to grown high-quality produce for local businesses while putting Detroiters with barriers to employment into sustaining jobs. Anna is an accomplished nonprofit strategist with proficiencies in training programs for incarcerated persons, anti-recidivism programs as well as fundraising, grant writing, project management and community engagement/organizing. Anna has worked in politics, the nonprofit sector, and education - most recently as adjunct faculty through Jackson College, teaching Entrepreneurship courses at the Macomb Correctional Facility since 2013.