To Save A Life is to Save The World

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of our Reform Movement, recently wrote that many well meaning people, on reflecting upon the global impact of the current Coronavirus pandemic, opine that we are all in the same boat. However, Rabbi Jacobs makes a very important distinction: we may all be on the same boat, but some of our experiences on that boat may be radically different from others. In illustrating his point, Rabbi Jacobs recalls that when the Titanic sank most of the people in 3rd class did not get out—75% of them drowned while only 40% of those in 1st class died. If you were well off you had a massive advantage, almost 2 to 1! We may all be on the same boat, but many will suffer far more serious consequences than others of us. Many of us are very fortunate that we can safely shelter at home during these challenging times and have access to food and sanitary conditions. Very quickly this terrible virus has laid bare many of the underlying inequalities in our country. The poor and people of color are being impacted far more negatively by this disease. One of the other particular populations in California that are certain to be seriously harmed by the spread of this virus are those in our prison system. These are human beings who are paying their debt to society for the wrongs they have committed and it is inhumane to place them in precarious circumstances that put them directly in harms way. But this is what is happening as COVID-19 continues to spread and wreak havoc in the penal system.

Our Jewish tradition holds the preciousness of life at its very core and teaches that we have a responsibility to protect human life at all costs.  We call this pikuach nefesh, and we are commanded, not just permitted, to save a life even if it means violating central mitzvot,  such as  driving on Shabbat or eating on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It is a fact that many California prisons are overcrowded and lack basic hygiene options and health care resources. Unaddressed, this combination of factors will make COVID-19 outbreaks in our prisons inevitable. And people will die; many of them. Urgent action is needed to reduce California’s prison population and improve conditions, in order to reduce the risk of infection of prisoners and guards alike, and to prevent California prisons from becoming an ongoing reservoir for the coronavirus to spread throughout California.

The Religious Action Center of California, a part of our national Reform Movement’s Social Justice team, has made it a priority right now to unite to urge Governor Newsom to continue to reduce the population in state prisons and provide for the safe reentry of those released. I was on a call with Governor Newsom last week and he reaffirmed his commitment to reducing this population as quickly as possible. He has already released nearly 3,500 non-violent prisoners; but he needs our encouragement and support to continue reducing the dangerous overcrowding in California prisons at this time. Without our calls of support and pressure for these efforts, he won’t have the political will to take these vital steps that we know he must. Help us thank him for his efforts and urge him to do more.

Right now, California state prisons hold more than 122,000 people – 35,000 more than they were designed for.  This overcrowding makes social distancing and sanitary conditions impossible. Prisons are like an experiment designed to spread the coronavirus; there have already been cases noted within California’s prison system, among guards and prisoners, and an inmate just died this week in a Lompoc prison. This situation endangers both those incarcerated and those who work inside them.  Making this problem even worse, the daily churn of staff and others in and out of these facilities means that a COVID-19 outbreak in jails and prisons will lead to the spread of COVID-19 in the households and communities where these employees return at the end of every shift. 

In order to protect people who work and reside in prisons and all Californians, we should release as many prisoners as possible.  The highest priority should be to release people who are 60 or older and have less than 5 years left in their sentence or those who are at an especially high risk for fatality from COVID-19:  the immuno-compromised and those with diabetes, heart disease, or respiratory conditions. Also those deemed to be a very low risk to public safety; and those who are held on probation and technical parole violation detainers or sentences or are soon to be eligible for parole. Of course, care must be taken so that people are released from incarceration in a way that does not increase their risk of catching COVID-19 or spreading it to others by providing testing and/or quarantine for prisoners so they don’t spread the virus. In addition, they should ensure that those released have a place to live with family or friends or will be provided a place to stay for those who don’t have a safe place.


Our Jewish tradition teaches that everyone has a responsibility to protect people from dangers posed to them under their authority. Deuteronomy 22:8 instructs, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” We must do all that we can to protect those incarcerated in potentially fatal situations, as well as those who work in those environments. 

Please join our Bet Haverim Team Tikkun Olam in our call to ask Governor Newsom to reduce the population in California state prisons and provide for the safe reentry of those who are released. You can call Governor Newsom at (916) 445-2841 to speak directly with his office. Tell him you are calling from Congregation Bet Haverim and that we are part of a statewide effort to join with him in reducing prison populations during this Corona crisis. Let us keep our communities healthy and safe for all of us. Let us truly save lives.

With blessings and gratitude for your help,

Rabbi Greg

For more information on this issue, visit the RAC-CA’s page here at or contact RAC-CA organizers Lee Winkelman at or Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller at