If you were to visit the Rainbow Camp in between San Diego and Los Angeles, you would find all the trappings of a women’s spiritual retreat; yoga and meditation sessions, small gardens growing organic vegetables and herbs, and the smell of eucalyptus wafting through the air. You’d see no one walking around with a smartphone or tablet in hand; instead you’d find everyone hanging out in the woodworking shop, playing baseball on beautiful diamonds, hiking the wooded trails, or reading quietly in the library. Mealtimes are filled with laughter and good food; barbeques, lobster, rib-eye steak, or all-you-can-eat-shrimp. A sense of calm and goodwill pervades the camp. The only thing you would find strange is the ubiquitous fashion choice, orange jump suits with the words CDCR PRISONER stamped in bold black ink.

The women of Rainbow Camp are prisoners of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a prison system notorious for overcrowded prisons with deplorable conditions. So how do the women of Rainbow Camp earn their place in this seeming Shangri-La of prisons? Stick around a few days, and if it’s between May and November you’re bound to find out.

The women of Rainbow Camp are all firefighters. They are the people rushing towards massive forest fires while everyone else is running away. Last year, over 9,133 fires raged across California, burning a total of 1,381,405 acres of forests, and destroying or damaging over 10,000 structures, making it the worst fire season in all of recorded history. Most sad of all was the loss of life, two firefighters and forty-one civilians, more fatalities by fire than the previous ten years combined. One of the firefighters was Shawna Lynn Jones, a prisoner who had volunteered to be part of the firefighting crew, and was paid a dollar an hour to do so. She had six weeks left to her prison sentence.

There are roughly 4,000 inmate firefighters in the state of California, 250 women and 3,750 men. At any given firefighting site, they make up 50-80% of the firefighters. They are all non-violent offenders, most of them are in prison for drug or alcohol related crimes that the state classifies as low-level. Inmates who volunteer for the program must pass a fitness test, and undergo a training course that lasts just three weeks, far shorter than the three year apprenticeship that civilian firefighters undergo.

When a fire is reported in their vicinity, the women at Rainbow Camp scramble into action, and within minutes will be rolling out of camp in red trucks emblazoned with L.A. County Fire decals. Upon reaching the fire site, they climb out fully clothed in orange Nomex fire retardant suits and shouldering 50-pound backpacks filled with gloves, food, full water bottles, flares, safety and medical gear, and a special emergency cocoon they can climb into in case they find themselves surrounded by flames and unable to retreat.

The firefighters form a line ensuring that there is never more than ten feet separating one person from the next, small enough of a gap that they can call out to each other frequently when smoke is heavy and ensure that no one is lost. The task of the line is to create a firebreak, essentially clearing a space about six feet wide of all kindling so that the fire cannot advance without anything to burn. This means cutting down trees, chopping the cut trees into logs small enough that they can be hauled away, clearing away all brush, and then raking down the remaining ground to create a clean line of nothing but smooth soil at least six feet wide.

They start well away from the fire itself as it can take hours of intense labor to clear a break that will stop a raging fire.  The firefighter’s line is headed by the “first saw” and “second saw.” The job of the first saw is to cut down trees, which are then cut smaller by the second saw. After that the “Pulaskis” follow, a group named for the special shovel they use to remove any left over brush. Finally the “McLeods” come in, and rake over the ground using a special rake known by the name of its inventor, McLeod. Everyone who joins the program starts out as a McLeod, but if they show skill and hard work, the line captain will promote them to Pulaski, second saw, and eventually first saw.

A team can work for twelve hours straight on building a firebreak, and there is no guarantee it will work. Winds can shift, sending the fire away from the firebreak, where it continues to grow and sometimes slowly makes its way back around where the line was built. The fire can also sometimes “jump,” igniting something across the firebreak and essentially rendering useless the hours of strenuous work of the firefighters.

The heroic inmate firefighters get paid just $2.65 for every day they are at the fire camp, where most days involve training and practice, and an additional $1 per hour while they are actively fighting fires. Civilian firefighter’s salaries start at $40,000 with full benefits including the ability to retire after twenty years with a full pension. The inmate firefighting program saves the taxpayers in California about $100 million a year.

There are three all-women camps; Rainbow Camp, Malibu and Puerta La Cruz. The camp conditions are far better than regular prisons, one even has a cabin where prisoners can spend up to three days with visiting family, but that is not the only reason that women volunteer for firefighting duty. There is a sense of mission in fighting fires and saving lives that you can’t get in the regular prison system where the most satisfying work you might have is manufacturing license plates or doing the prison laundry. And when neighborhoods fill with yard signs thanking the angels that saved their homes, there is feeling of accomplishment you don’t get in many other places.

The women in the firefighting camps also feel a deep sense of kinship, it’s almost like a big family with dozens of sisters living together. They all came into the prison system for similar reasons, and prior to prison, most of them had similar life experiences. They train together, cook their own food, self-organize yoga, meditation, and prayer groups, and they rely on one another to stay alive in the thick of battle. There’s nothing that builds kinship faster than a one thousand degree fifty-foot-high wall of fire bearing down on you.

The inmate firefighters of California are following a long tradition of inmate labor. The first official state prison was located on a 268-ton ship called the Waban. The prisoners slept on the decks at night and spent their days building their future home, the San Quentin Prison, which stands till today, housing well over 3,000 inmates from it’s perch on San Quentin bay. In the 1920’s inmate crews built many of the state’s highways. During WWII, prisoners were mobilized to work in factories supporting the war effort. Just after the war, in 1946, Rainbow Camp was opened, the first prison camp dedicated to fighting fires. The program was so successful that in 1959, the state doubled its size, and it has continued to grow steadily since then. In 2014, when California was facing its overcrowded prison crisis, the office of the attorney general argued against reducing prison population because “it would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the inmate firefighting system. The firefighters themselves talk about how they would like higher wages, but they still volunteer for the program in it’s current form in great numbers. The Open Society Institute funded a study by five prominent economist, which resulted in call for more labor rights for prisoners, as well as significantly higher minimum wages, but that has largely been ignored as well. The American Civil Liberties Union, as expected, takes an even more extreme approach, they openly oppose of all forms of prison labor.

I deeply applaud the inmate firefighters program, and believe it should be a model for how prisoners are treated around the country. I openly call for the return of the prison work crew, and believe they should be deployed post haste to fix the crumbling infrastructure all over the country. Let’s go through some of the numbers.

The US had thousands of bridges, roads, tunnels, dams, and highways that are literally falling apart. A March 2017 report by the American Society for Civil Engineers stated that it will cost the US 4.6 trillion dollars to get the infrastructure back to full working order.

The US spends about eighty-one billion dollars each year on the prison system, keeping criminals off the streets. A good example of this is the aforementioned San Quentin Prison, one of the largest in the US. It is designed to house 3,082 inmates, but it currently holds about 3,800 inmates. It has a staff of 1,718, and its budget is two hundred and ten million dollars, meaning that taxpayers are spending over $55,200 per year per inmate.

The prison system is not working. According to a Bureau of Justice statistic from 2016, state prisons have a 76.6% five-year recidivism rate (within five years of being released, 76.6% of prisoners will find their way back to prison). Federal prisons fare a little better, they only have a 44.7% five-year recidivism rate.

Perhaps one of the reasons that prison does such a bad job of rehabilitating people is because the prisoners essentially do almost nothing but serve time. Sure, some prisoners may work making license plates or doing the prison laundry for a few hours a day, but they don’t serve the populace they hurt with their crimes, and they don’t come close to paying society back for the exorbitant cost of keeping them out of harm’s way.

But even worse, the prisoners are bored, with no way of doing anything meaningful with their time. Humans were created to work hard, as the verse says (Job, 5:7) “Man was created for toil.” We humans are incredible machines, capable of manipulating the environment to our benefit in ways not seen by any other species. When prisoners spend the majority of their day doing nothing, all their human potential simply rots away, and they become more disconnected from their true selves, and more disillusioned about their ability to ever succeed. The Talmud has nothing good to say about boredom. It states that idleness brings to sin and idleness brings to insanity, both things we should not be breeding in our prison system.

Human beings were also created to help one another. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s son wrote that his father would constantly tell his children, “Mankind was not created for himself, mankind was only created to bring benefit to other people.” The reason that thousands of inmates volunteer to fight raging fires, risking life and limb for almost no pay, is so that they can feel like they are doing something meaningful with their lives. When we are aligned with our purpose, we are much better equipped to deal with stresses of life, and much more likely to stay out of harm or mischief. When we are not aligned with our purpose, when we spend our time being unproductive or only work to enrich ourselves, we end up hurting ourselves and others. I would love to see a study of the recidivism rate for people who spent five years or more being a inmate firefighter, and I’m confident it is significantly lower than the general prison population that spent five years sitting around and stewing.

If we were to employ more prisoners in building infrastructure, we could give them better conditions because their actual cost to the state would go down dramatically. They would feel the pride of looking back at a newly paved highway, or newly resurfaced dam, and be able to say, “I built that!” In Jewish philosophy, we value a person contributing to the well being of the world. According to one opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 84B) a person who gambles for a living is disqualified as a witness, “because he is not engaged in settling the world.” G-d created the world to be built up and settled not to lay dormant and undeveloped, as the verse says (Isaiah 45:18), “He did not create it for a waste, He created it to be settled.” Keeping people locked away without the ability to develop the world is a waste.

If inmates across the country were to spend their time building up this country, we would have:

  • Prisoners who feel better about themselves and less likely to commit recidivist crime
  • Prisoners who are treated better because some of the savings from their labor would get passed on to improve their quality of life (as is the case with the firefighters)
  • Prisoners who often come out of prison with newly learned skills that will enable them to earn an honest living as opposed to going back to crime
  • Our nation’s infrastructure being repaired for a fraction of the cost of union construction work

Obviously, the most violent criminals would only be able to work inside prison walls, and special anklets with GPS tracking would be use to prevent escaping. But of the 2.3 million people in the prison system today, over 1.1 million of them have committed non-violent offenses, and they would be excellent candidates for a new approach to rehabilitation.

Those that are outside of prison walls can learn from those within. We live in a society where incredible amounts of time are spent on consuming media, and playing video games. According to Statista, a major data collection firm, the average American, consumes about a whopping 721 minutes of media per day and plays 1,733 minutes of video games per month. I’m not on a crusade to end all media consumption (how would I find interesting things to write about?) but I also believe that our consumption trends indicate that we are way too bored as humans, and it’s not surprising that prescriptions for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety have been skyrocketing, the Talmud did say that boredom was not good for our mental health.

Finding ways to use our spare time more productively, more engaged “in the settlement of the world” may be a far more effective remedy than simply popping pills and continuing to consume vast amounts of media and video games. The more one spends his time engaged in making the world a better place for others, the more his own internal world gets better. The fires you put out in the wild, seem to put out fires within as well.


Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s portion, Shelach, we read about the meraglim, the spies that the Jews sent forth to reconnoiter the land of Israel before they would enter it. The meraglim came back and gave a negative report, causing the Jews to lose spirit, and even suggest that they should return to Egypt. One of the main complaints lodged by the spies, was the presence of giants, that the spies claimed to be unconquerable.  Of the twelve spies sent out, two remained faithful to Israel, described it in glowing terms, and told the people that they could surely prevail over the giants.

Soon the people began attacking Moshe, claiming that by bringing the Jews to Israel, he was leading the whole people to its death. In verse 13:30, Calev, one of the good spies tells the people, “aloh na’aleh viyarashnu osu,” we shall surely go up and inherit it [Israel]. Rashi comments on the strange usage of verbs in the statement we shall surely go up. Rashi says that Calev told the people that even if Moshe would tell the people to go up to the heavens, they should begin making ladders, for they would be successful.

This seems quite strange, as ladders can’t take one up to heaven. As a matter of fact, even with all our modern technology, we can’t fly to heaven because heaven has no geographical location. Why was this the analogy Calev chose to use when trying to bring the people back to Moshe?

Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest leaders of American Jewry in the 20th century, gives the following answer. When we have a task in life, our job is to get to work, not to think about whether we can complete the task or not. As the mishnah states in Ethics of Our Fathers, “You are not responsible to finish the job, yet you are not free to desist from laboring in it!” Our job is to start the task, to put our effort into it, and G-d will decide whether or not we accomplish it.

The mistake of the spies was that they missed this point. They saw the giants in the Land of Israel and said that they would be unable to conquer them. They didn’t realize that their job was not to conquer, that would be up to G-d, who eventually did cause the Jews to miraculously conquer the giants. Their job was to travel fearlessly into Israel, showing their faith in G-d that He would help them complete the conquest.

When Calev stood up to show the Jews the proper perspective, he purposely picked something that seemed to be impossible, going up to heaven. He told them that if the impossible were asked of them, they should begin doing actions that would at least get them part of the way there and G-d will take care of the rest. This message resonates strongly in our daily life. How often do we turn away from a spiritual journey that could revolutionize our lives because we think that we will never reach the lofty plane we aspire to? Calev is still calling out to us, telling us to start building the ladders, and let G-d make sure that we get to heaven!!!


Parsha Summary

As mentioned above, this Parsha speaks about the spies the Jews sent into Israel. When the people came to Moshe with a request to send spies, Moshe asked G-d. G-d replied, if you want to send spies, go ahead, but I see no reason for it, as I told you the land would be good. From here we see that right from the get-go, this spy idea wasn’t too hot. We also learn that G-d will not prevent you from doing something bad. He gave us free will, and if we desire a wicked path, He will not bar us from walking down it.

Next, Moshe picked the leaders of the tribes, amongst them his best disciple Hoshea. Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which is an acronym for “G-d should save you (from the counsel of the meraglim).” He gave the spies instructions as to where to go exactly and what to look for. Moshe told the spies to study at the cities they would encounter. If they were heavily fortified with many defenses, it would be a sign that the people are weak.  However, if the cities were open, it would show that the inhabitants are strong and have nothing to fear. This is often also true in human psychology. Sometimes we see people who, due to unfortunate events in their past, put up strong walls of defense, almost never allowing their true emotions to show. Although some might view this as a strength, in reality, it is a sign of emotional weakness. The person who has emotional strength learns to overcome difficult events, and to slowly open themselves up to the entire range of emotions, even though at times it will be painful. (Thanks Wurzweiller School of Social Work, I am using you for the first time this year!)

The spies went, and came back bearing the fruit of the land. They described the land to the Jews as the ultimate Super Sized country; the fruit was huge (eight people were needed to carry one cluster of grapes), the people were gigantic, and inhabitants were dying all over the place (As a favor to the spies, G-d arranged that a lot of people should die so that, due to their grief, no one would notice the spies. However, when someone is looking for bad, they will find it even in the good being done for them). The Jews began to fear going to Israel, and started talking about going back to Egypt, ignoring the protests of Yehoshua and Caleb, the two righteous spies, who tried to tell the people how good the land was. The Jews became so hysterical that the entire nation wept all night long.

G-d was so angry that He threatened to destroy the entire nation and rebuild it from Moshe alone, but Moshe prayed very hard, saying that all the nations would say that G-d could only beat one king (Pharaoh) but not the 31 kings living in Israel so He killed His people before they got to Israel. Moshe also used the 13 Attributes of Mercy, a special formula for praying which G-d had told Moshe never returns without results. In the end, G-d acquiesced and said that He would not wipe out the Jewish nation for their grievous sin of not believing in Him and His promises about the Holy Land. However, G-d swore that all the adults who did not believe Him, would never see the land – they would die out slowly over forty years of wandering in the desert. (The forty years paralleled the forty days the spies spent in the Holy Land gathering evil information to tell the Jews.)

Additionally, the night that the Jews cried for no reason was the night of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), and G-d declared that in the future it would be the night on which Jews would cry forever. Sure enough, on Tisha B’Av we lost both our first and second Temples, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, World War I began — a war whose outcome triggered World War II and its Holocaust, The Final Solution was decreed and signed by Goring YS’V the day before Tisha B’Av 1941, and the cattle cars left Warsaw, the largest ghetto with 400,000 Jews, on Tisha B’Av 1942. Although this seems like an awful lot of punishment for one sin, we need to understand that the underlying mistake of the Jews’ tears, was their lack of complete faith that G-d can deliver on His promises. This lack of faith in G-d’s ability continues to be the cause of our pain and suffering as a nation.

After G-d spelled out the decree, a number of Jews suddenly felt remorse, and decided to go up and conquer Israel. Moshe told them not to go, as G-d had just decreed forty years of wandering. They went anyway, but G-d was not with them, and they were easily defeated by an army of Canaanites that they encountered immediately.

The Torah next describes the libations (offerings of wine and flour) which were brought along with the different sacrifices offered in the Temple. O.K. I was a teacher for eight years in NYC, and old habits die hard, so for homework I’m asking you to email me an answer as to what is the significance of the juxtaposition of the story of the spies and the libations. They seem to be totally unrelated, so why are they right next to each other in the Torah?

The Torah then describes the mitzvah of challah, which is the commandment to take a bit of dough off any dough we make and give it to the Kohen. Today we don’t give it to the Kohen, because they don’t have the level of ritual purity necessary to eat it, but we do take off a piece from our dough, (and if the dough is 5 lbs or more, we even make a blessing on doing this special mitzvah!) Today, being that we don’t give the Challah to a Cohen, and we can’t eat, we instead simply burn it. The Torah then discusses the atonement process for different forms of idol worship including intentional individual, unintentional individual, and unintentional public (when the High Court makes an erroneous ruling that allows a practice which is actually idol worship.) The last story in the Parsha is about a person who went out and desecrated Shabbos publicly, even though he was warned not to do so, and the punishment he received.

The Parsha concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzis, the fringes we wear on four cornered garments. They are there to serve as a constant reminder of our obligations to G-d. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this, which happened to a close friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Eisemann, of Passaic, NJ. Once, when he was on a campus out in the West Coast doing outreach, he saw a big commotion. After going out to see what was going on, he sees a number of PETA activists (who advocate for animal rights and veganism) with a huge sign reading, “Stop the Holocaust on your plate, become a vegetarian!” Understandably, there was a large group of people standing around demanding that they take down this offensive sign which so minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Fists were about to fly, when, suddenly, the leader of the PETAniks shows up. Sure enough, he is this little timid looking Jewish guy, and he averts the danger by telling his troop to take down the sign. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to reach out to another Jew, Rabbi E went to talk to him. He noticed that the fellow had a massive tattoo on his arm with some kind of message saying “Never Forget the Other Animals of this World” which the boy told Rabbi E he had drilled into him to ensure that he never forgets his responsibilities to the other animals of the planet. (I assume getting that tattoo should probably be considered cruelty to humans, getting tattoos hurts!) Rabbi E then told him that all Jews have a similar thing to remind them constantly of their responsibility to G-d and he showed him his tzitzit. The boy actually became interested in learning more about Judaism but, unfortunately, every time they were supposed to get together to learn, this boy was in jail for some illegal demonstration or other. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Trouble is only opportunity in work clothes. – Henry J. Kaiser


Random Fact of the Week: The international telephone dialing code for Antarctica is 672


Funny Quip of the Week: Give me ambiguity or give me something else.


Have a Bravura Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham


‘‘would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought

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