“Beth Am Reads” Sparks New Project: The Beth Am Books to Prisoners Pipeline | Congregation Beth Am

“Beth Am Reads” Sparks New Project: The Beth Am Books to Prisoners Pipeline

Did you know that reading and education have been shown to play an important and effective role in rehabilitation for incarcerated persons in the United States?  Did you know that prisoners have extremely limited access to the books and study materials that can help them to make such a positive change in their lives?  As congregant Debbie Mukamal, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, explains:  “Most prisoners are required to work while they are incarcerated.  But they earn, on average, 19 cents an hour. They can’t just buy a book on Amazon.”  Nor can they simply check out any book they want from a library — a luxury we often take for granted — because prison libraries are extremely underfunded and understaffed, and the shelves are short on useful books.

On March 5, a group of Beth Am teens teamed up with the Library Committee and our Director of Teen Engagement, Maddy Winard, along with Debbie Mukamal, to help solve that problem by engaging in a unique social justice project — Beth Am is preparing to send its discarded library books to California state prison libraries.

The Beth Am Library Committee has been busy weeding the library shelves over the course of the past year, pruning a number of books that are older, duplicative, or otherwise less well suited for the congregation’s current needs than they once were.  The goal is to make room for exciting new books that serve the current needs of members, clergy, staff, and the general community.  Once the clergy has reviewed the proposed discards, the Committee makes the books available to the congregation, by placing them on browsing tables before Torah Study on Shabbat morning for a few weeks.  Lots of books have found good homes that way — in your homes! — but we’re still left with hundreds of books that need to be responsibly discarded.  In the past, our discards have either been sold to used bookstores, with the proceeds plowed back into new library acquisitions, or donated to the Friends of the Palo Alto Library.

But a few months ago, some members of the Library Committee attended the first session of the Beth Am Reads discussion group, led by Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit and Debbie Mukamal, and a new idea was born.  The discussion focused on the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, an exploration of systemic injustices in America’s criminal justice system and the problem of mass incarceration in our country — we have a higher percentage of incarcerated people than any country in the world (we have just 4.4% of the world’s population but house around 22% of the world’s prisoners), the system is skewed to disadvantage the poor and communities of color, and the conditions in which prisoners live are often deplorable.  At the end of the discussion, several congregants asked Debbie and Rabbi Jon what Beth Am could do to help.  Debbie suggested several categories of donated items that might be useful… and when she mentioned the problem of prisoners not having adequate access to reading material, we discovered a new use for those boxes of discarded books in the library.

But it’s not as simple as shipping the books off to prisoners.  The books can’t be sent directly to inmates — they must be donated to prison libraries, and the state prison system has specific requirements and restrictions. First and foremost, each book must be listed by author and title, so that prison librarians can review the publication and determine whether it’s suitable (books that might incite violence or inappropriate behavior, even through casual description or discussion, are excluded) and hardcovers must be noted separately. That’s a lot of work, and it would have taken our small volunteer Library Committee quite a while to list all that information in their spare time. 

Beth Am teens to the rescue!

When Maddy heard about the project, she immediately saw an opportunity — what better way to get our teens involved in a bit of timely and relevant social justice action? A little planning behind the scenes led to a great ‪Sunday afternoon:  ten Beth Am teens (and Debbie’s daughter, Zoe, the youngest member of the team) worked together to catalogue boxes and boxes of books for eventual donation to prison libraries, with a bit of teaching beforehand from Debbie and the Library Committee about why the project is so important, and how the teens will be making a concrete difference in the lives of real people by donating a little time out of their weekend.  In the space of two hours, working in teams of two, the group catalogued hundreds of titles — and had fun besides!

The Library Committee is grateful for the assistance of Debbie Mukamal, Maddy Winard and, most especially, the teen volunteers who made it all happen.

The Beth Am Books to Prisoners Pipeline Project is a truly wonderful example of the best of Beth Am in action: teens and adults, professional staff and lay members, all coming together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who are among the most disadvantaged in our society.  The project will continue as more books become available for donation, so if you’d like to get involved — anyone B’nei Mitzvah age and up is welcome — just reach out by sending an email to ‪library@betham.org, or to Maddy Winard if you’re a teen or the parent of a teen. 

And if you’d like to read the book that started it all… Just Mercy is available in the Beth Am Library, together with all the books on the Beth Am Reads schedule, lots of great books on social justice in the Jewish tradition and more!

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).