On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, Yeshiva University partnered with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and West Side Institutional Synagogue for a powerful and timely discussion on “Reinventing the Self,” part of the YU Ideas initiative at the University.
Panelists included Dr. Debbie Akerman, adjunct professor of social work and associate director, field/block program, Wurzweiler School of Social Work; Alex Reinert, Max Freund Professor of Litigation and Advocacy and director of the Center for Rights and Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School; and Dr. Daniel Rynhold, professor in modern Jewish philosophy and director of the doctoral program at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.
In addition to her position at Wurzweiler, Dr. Akerman maintains a private practice focusing on addiction and trauma and couples and family counseling. “The world of addiction and recovery encourages self-introspection on a daily basis,” she said. “Once the individual begins the slow, arduous task of recovery, the layers and layers of shame, guilt, anger and resentments begin to peel away, leaving an individual that many do not recognize, an individual bathed in gratitude, love, living amends and service to others. The transformation is stunning and real.”
Reinert, a staunch advocate for prison reform, spoke of encounters he had with clients within prisons and said that “one thing always strikes me: the ability of our client, having human contact with another person for the first time in six months, people whom he had never met before, to engage on a deeply personal level with us about an extremely traumatic event that occurred in prison.”
Reinert went on to say that he would regularly experience the dissonance that came with seeing the capacity that people had, even under incredibly dehumanizing conditions, to demonstrate resilience in the face of their predicament. Though he was adamant about the need for prison reform in America, he made sure to add that “people can transform themselves in prison, reinvent themselves. Some of my clients over the years managed to do so—not because of what prisons had to offer but more in spite of what prisons inflict.”
Dr. Rynhold brought everything together with Jewish sources, particularly focusing on the view of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He noted that our modern view of repentance was vastly different from the medieval view of R. Jonah of Gerondi, who wrote about the angst one must have over past sins. “Rather than torture oneself for the sins that one has committed,” Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the sinner’s ability to “change the past” by understanding one’s sin not as an indelible stain upon one’s conscience but rather something that the sinner “strives to convert into a spiritual springboard for increased inspiration and evaluation.”
These diverse perspectives from the worlds of addiction, prison reform and Jewish philosophy helped inspire the crowd to have an uplifting High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.