Aaron Portman tells the story of Frank who is determined to continue to grow in his faith and desires to learn as much as he can while in jail.
I have never met Frank in person. Our relationship has been strictly virtual, as have so many over the past year. Through the computer screen, Frank wears an orange jumpsuit, sitting in a colorless room. I can see other men walking down the hallway through the window behind him, sometimes staring curiously through the glass.
When I introduce myself, Frank nods and smiles, showing a few missing teeth. He is not a young man, perhaps 40 or 50, and the lines on his face tell that he has clearly been through a lot.
I began meeting with Frank as a spiritual adviser as part of my internship for rabbinical school with the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. I was told that he was a Messianic Jew — an individual that believes in both the Jewish faith and the divinity of Jesus — and wanted to meet with a rabbi. As an Orthodox Jew, I did not share his Messianic views, but I decided to meet with him nonetheless. I had worked as a chaplain at Rikers Island in New York City and had met my fair share of individuals with blurred religious identities.
Now, I could not be happier I took the call. Frank is a deeply religious man who sees God in everything and everyone.
“I am truly blessed,” Frank said to me the other day. “I’ve learned to see God’s blessings during my time here.” Frank is an optimist and faces the daily challenges of incarceration with grace and unshakable faith.
Frank was born to an aggressive father who espoused “KKK ideas” and was violent toward his mother. As a child, his father told him that his mother had died, which was a lie. Eventually, he reconnected with his mother and went to live with her and her parents.
Frank discovered Judaism in his mother’s home through his grandfather. Frank knew that his grandfather was Jewish, but it was rarely talked about. They were the only Jewish family in their neighborhood, and usually kept their faith quiet, but Frank occasionally went to temple with his caring and loving grandfather. Frank recalled one memory, where his grandfather told him he had to feed the animals before he could feed himself. When I told him that was a Jewish custom, Frank nodded and replied, “That makes sense. I could see God in him.”
Eventually, Frank’s mother started going to church and he started life as a Christian. It was then he felt connected to mission work and, now, has expressed a desire to work with the needy once he is released.
However, he never forgot his grandfather and the deep connection he once felt toward Judaism.
After he was incarcerated, Frank began to read the Bible intently and started to keep some Jewish practices. He made sure to rest on Shabbat. He asked his facility for kosher food but was denied since he was not considered Jewish. This was something that hurt him since he felt a connection to Judaism and wanted to be authentic.
Over the last several months, Frank and I meet to study the weekly Torah portion, trying to make connections between the stories we read and his experiences. We have read about Joseph and how he dealt with incarceration. We have addressed the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and how to deal with unfavorable judgement. We have discussed repentance and forgiveness and were able to get Frank his own copy of the Tanach, as well as help him receive kosher food.
Despite the harsh reality he faces, Frank is determined to continue to grow in his faith and desires to learn as much as he can. His Jewish journey is well under way.
Aaron Portman is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City. He serves as a rabbinic intern at the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC (JCRC/AJC).