Rabbi Ernest MichelRabbi Ernest Michel has served as a chaplain in Arizona jails since 1982.Photo courtesy of Rabbi Ernest Michel
A lone rabbi circulates among inmates roaming unrestricted on a lockdown ward.A neo-Nazi tracks his
movements, suddenly approaches, and thrusts his
shoulder into the man's face, displaying a swastika tattoo.Ernest G. Michel
, the target of this inmate's hatred, merely places a tempered, experienced hand on the arm and says, "Gee, what a beautiful Indian design.When did you get it?"
"Ernie," a short, animated man with a gray goatee, lives unassumingly, surrounded by books that have been the cornerstone of his
life's work for the past 50 years.One of the few disturbances in his
day is the beeper he
carries on his
was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1920 under the hateful gaze of European anti-Semitism.As a 1-year-old, he
first hard lesson about human cruelty.His
parents, fleeing Polish occupation, hid Michel
in a pushcart, the family dog wrapped around his
body.As they approached the border, they were stopped by soldiers who immediately thrust swords through the cart in an attempt to kill the child.Seeing blood, they were satisfied their mission had been accomplished.Only later did the parents discover the dead dog.Michel
was a personal witness of Hitler youth marches.From the Juden (Jew) benches in the back of European classrooms, he
experienced the harsh realities of anti-Semitism firsthand.At times, he
was hanged from the neck by wet towels in the closets of these "halls of higher learning."In defiance of Nazi occupation, he joined a Czech resistance group.
In 1938, Michel's family escaped the impending terror of the Holocaust.Then 18, he
arrived via freighter in San Pedro, Calif., the Los Angeles Harbor.Ironically, health concerns caused Michel's first stop to be an American jail cell, where he
was qua-rantined overnight.Upon release, he
first taste of freedom at a local soda fountain before heading to Boyle Heights, the "Jewish section" of Los Angeles in the 1930s.With little experience in America's language or culture, Michel
moved from job to job.After early education as a civil engineer, he
settled in the printing business.He
later found his
calling - the rabbinate.
The chaplain says we should learn from our mistakes and he
doesn't believe in judging others.Michel
explains this philosophy in heavily accented English: "People are nice if you give them a chance.
says, "Don't talk silly."He
explains, "I try to talk him out of it."Michel
offers reassurance, "You've got a lot of time yet, you're still young.
Despite the provisions for Jewish inmates, Michel
insists "I talk to any inmate if I can help out and make their stay easier."He
carries slips of paper with prayers from multiple denominations facilitating worship with inmates of any religion."I am a chaplain first and a rabbi second."
A veteran of the system, Michel
is no longer bothered by its red tape and occasional anti-Semitism.It is his
own health that limits the time he
devotes to inmates.Some days require that he
see upwards of 30 prisoners.Arthritis makes commutes to jails through muddy parking lots difficult.Michel
believes that everything can be changed - from the system to the inmates.The human aspect is important to him."They must be treated as human beings."The rabbi has observed that detention officers become "like kings" - they are trained to protect themselves and handle difficult inmates, but "are not taught how to handle human beings."Michel
is concerned that they are taught "to speak louder but not kinder."In an effort to modify this behavior, the rabbi tries to impart his
ideals of kindness to young officers.In effect, Michel
is trying to expand the role of the chaplain from someone who deals only with religion to someone who can facilitate better interaction between inmates and prison staff.This belief motivates him to continue his
work for as long as he
can."I keep doing the work because God says I should," he
commitment to the inmates does not end when they are released.He
understands that inmates have a tough time reentering society, but he
never compromises his
The skinhead who displayed the swastika now greets Michel
with a smile and a look of respect."I turned him from bad to semi-good."Respect is a word the rabbi holds close to his
recalls a time he
told inmates that he
could flip any man in the jail using the judo he
learned in the armed services.He
even takes the occasional sexual proposition in stride.Michel
believes anti-Semitism, like any hatred, should be dealt with through respect.
was saved from the Holocaust and the terrors of World War II, and is grateful for his
is repaying God through his
chaplaincy.The rabbi believes that hatred makes one sick, but forgiveness can heal.This is the philosophy he
takes into the jails and into society at large."I am an ambassador of God," he says.He
thinks society should learn to forgive mistakes, including the misdeeds of inmates.
...Rabbi Michel welcomes volunteers.
Contact him at 602-953-3060.