Tablet Magazine Brenda Clubine suffered repeated beatings from her husband until one day, threatened in a locked hotel room, she smashed him over the head with a wine bottle and killed him. She served 26 years in prison for second-degree murder. Annette Imboden started drinking bourbon daily at age 12, adding heroin and cocaine to a lifelong addiction, eventually stealing credit cards and forging checks to fund her habit. She served 18 years before being paroled last year.
Clubine met Imboden while they were doing time at the California Institution of Women in Corona, 50 miles east of Los Angeles. There, the two women, both Jews, met another woman who would change their lives: Shayna Lester, a volunteer Jewish prison chaplain, who began visiting, influencing them in ways they never could have imagined.
Lester offered classes on Torah, explored the Ten Commandments from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and counseled them. But the most unorthodox tool she brought to the prison was Mussar, a spiritual practice that focuses on character traits like truthfulness, generosity, patience, and humility in an effort to help people overcome inner obstacles. Based on Jewish practices dating back more than a thousand years, it grew in popularity in 19th-century Lithuania under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Mussar movement. Today, though, despite a nascent revival among Jews of all stripes, Mussar is barely known outside the Orthodox yeshiva world.
Yet Mussar has proven to be a powerful tool for a group of female prisoners, allowing them to see where, when, or how they stumble in everyday life, even in prison. That awareness can alter their behavior, helping to bring them peace, or at least greater vigilance about the choices they make. [...]
Most of what Lester had learned about Mussar came from books and talks by Morinis, who has spawned a small, though growing, 21st-century movement with programs and classes and other resources through the nonprofit Mussar Institute, which reaches Jews of all denominations across North America. Mussar tools include introspection, text study (modern and ancient), and journaling on character traits, all devoted not so much to work on yourself for the sake of your self, but for a higher purpose, for the sake of holiness or wholeness, Morinis explained. That’s what distinguishes it from psychology or self-help, since Mussar, sometimes translated from Hebrew as “discipline,” posits that because we are made in the image of God, we are all holy souls.