A large part of my position at N Street Village, a social services agency in Washington, D.C., entails working with previously incarcerated women who are in recovery from substance abuse. To be honest, their status as former inmates is not something I deeply dwell on. It almost fades into the background, just another bullet point amid other loaded descriptors: homeless, hungry, ill — the list goes on.
I suppose it fades due to a number of factors. Perhaps the workplace environment is so saturated in this kind of lifestyle that you can become desensitized to the magnitude of it all. Maybe you need to become desensitized in order to cope with the expressed trauma, in order to do your job effectively. Maybe you purposely focus on other descriptors: mother, friend, human being. Maybe it’s a combination of factors, all of the above.
But every once in a while, the “previously incarcerated” label is brought back into the forefront, instantly attuning you to its reality. This recently happened to me when a former co-worker came back to visit. As she embraced clients and listened to their stories of success since her departure, I noticed one client, Charice, curiously standing on the outskirts, waiting her turn. Finally, she had her chance: “I wasn’t here when you left, but surely you remember me. Charice Johnson! D.C. Jail!”
The exclamation point truly doesn’t do the moment justice. It simply cannot capture the pride bursting through the words and the ear-to-ear smile across Charice’s face, representative of how far she had come. This all stood in stark opposition to the images commonly associated with jail: the metal bars, the clang of the door, the hopeless darkness in the cell.
The way in which Charice presented herself exclaimed, “This is me, take it or leave it. Here I am.” It was a statement rooted in a meaningful sense of awareness, identity, and presence. As an observer, it struck me in how boldly it resonated with the Hebrew term Hineni — “here I am.”
In the Torah, we are first introduced to the term Hineni when we read about Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, in Chapter 22 of Genesis. When God calls out to Abraham, prior to commanding him to sacrifice his son, Abraham responds, “Hineni.” He uses the same word to identify himself when Isaac asks him where the sacrificial lamb is lurking, after Abraham prepares the wood, fire and knife for the offering. And Abraham again replies with Hineni when an angel ultimately calls out to him to stop him from sacrificing Isaac.
In each of these instances, Hineni is linked to an intensive decision, a life-changing moment. It is uttered with mindfulness and deep reverence for that precise moment and what it truly entails. It finds companionship in the quote from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”
In Abraham’s case, I imagine Hineni is formed from a composite of fear, respect, love and sadness. Hineni is built on an intricate awareness of self and surroundings, and it is rooted in a reverberating sense of intentionality and loaded conviction. This is the same motif harbored in the last three words of the Yiddish song “Zog nit keyn mol,” translated as “Never Say,” also known as the “Partisan song,” a symbol of resistance and survival during the Holocaust. It culminates with a resounding “We are here!” — a bold message of utmost strength, determination, and an undying desire for life in the face of grave persecution.
Charice’s exclamation was her Hineni. It illustrated a significance of purpose, awareness and conviction, emphasizing the present moment and acknowledging how it came to be. Charice’s Hineni moment also established her as a leader — a leader of her own life. Though actively submitting herself to drug recovery, she is recovering herself. She is claiming ownership of her life, after years of relinquishing that ownership to the overpowering nature of addiction.
Many of the clients I serve had found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks in the past. Like Charice, they have made a decision to change their lives for the better, to overcome addiction, incarceration, abuse — whatever it may be. So when I interact with them, whether in our nutrition group, walking club, routine blood pressure check, or dispensing medication, I see them for who they are in the moment, as they stand in front of me, refraining from focusing on the past. I see them as fighters, dreamers, and once again, simply as human beings. And perhaps that is why those descriptors — previously incarcerated, homeless, hungry, and ill — can fade away, allowing goodness, hope and faith to emerge through the clearing.
Interestingly, the story of the Binding of Isaac is included in the Torah portion that we read on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The themes of awareness and presence are integral to the mentality of the time period, as we prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this time, we focus our hearts and minds on teshuvah, or repentance. The goal of teshuvah is to bring us closer to God, ridding ourselves of the plaque clogging our spiritual arteries. In order to do so effectively, in a way that lasts longer than the break-fast, we must channel these ideals of awareness, identity and intentionality, critically analyzing ourselves.
This in fact is not too far off from what the drug recovery program is about. Over a number of months, the women in recovery, must re-assess who they are, exploring what defines them and what they seek to gain from this second chance, this new-found present moment.
Ultimately, in both cases of teshuvah and recovery, we undergo a transformative process. Charice has had the opportunity to engage in this process at N Street Village, and we too have this opportunity particularly during the High Holiday season, but also whenever we choose to pursue it. When we are present and intentional in our thoughts, feelings and actions, we become more-refined versions of ourselves, the best we can be.
Nettie Faratci is from Skokie, Illi., and is a graduate of Brandeis University. She is currently the Wellness Center Program assistant at N Street Village in the District and is an alumna of the D.C. AVODAH program.