The drawing was done with a ballpoint pen, and the artist is not renowned — in fact, he is serving a life sentence at the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif. — but the framed image in the hallway near the entrance of B’nai Abraham may be one of the congregation’s most valued pieces.
The ink-on-paper drawing depicts two young people donned in tallit and
surrounded by the tree of life, tefillin and other Jewish symbols. It was created in honor of this year’s class of confirmands, according to Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, spiritual leader of the Butler, Pa., congregation.
Gray-Schaffer is delighted with the piece, and had it reproduced as the cover of the confirmation program.
“It’s very beautiful,” she said. “And the young man and the young women that [the artist] Melvin [Thomas] put in the picture happen to look so much like two of our three confirmands.”
Thomas has not yet met Gray-Schaffer or any other member of B’nai Abraham but nonetheless has developed a long-distance relationship with the congregation thanks to the volunteer efforts of congregant Ben Vincent. Vincent and Thomas, who are both Orthodox Jews, have been corresponding via snail mail for about three-and-a-half years. The two men became connected through the Aleph Institute, a not-for-profit Jewish organization that offers services to imprisoned Jewish men and women and their families.
Although Thomas was not raised Orthodox, he became religious following his incarceration, according to Gray-Schaffer. He longed to be part of a Jewish community, and the cantor was happy to include him in B’nai Abraham’s, a mix of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews.
“About two years ago, I started sending Melvin our shul bulletins and prayer books from the publisher (prison rules preclude her from sending books directly),” Gray-Schaffer said. “We have also corresponded. He writes really long, beautiful letters.”
Thomas, who is incarcerated for life as a result of California’s Three Strikes sentencing law and has not been convicted of a violent crime, was recently transferred to Chowchilla’s facility from the California State Prison in Corcoran, according to Gray-Schaffer. While he was at Corcoran, she said, Thomas reached out to other Jewish inmates and even led Shabbat services for them.
“For his birthday, I sent him packets of my sermons,” said Gray-Schaffer.
The cantor had seen samples of Thomas’ art, including a drawing he did in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, so when he offered to create a piece for the confirmands, she readily agreed.
“When I got it, I was so blown away,” she said.
Vincent was randomly assigned by the Aleph Institute to correspond to Thomas, but the match seems to be besheret.
“Getting to know Melvin has been one of the most incredible things to happen in my life and I think for Melvin as well,” Vincent said. “I feel blessed to have gotten to know him.”
The crime that got Thomas locked up for life was the theft of a truck worth less than $200, according to Vincent. Because of the Three Strikes law, a severe sentence was mandatory.
Thomas, who is six years into his sentence, is sorry for his crimes and wants to become a better person, said Vincent.
“Melvin’s dedication to do tshuvah and to do something with his life, and own his mistakes, is inspirational,” Vincent said.
Vincent hopes that Thomas may have a chance of being released pursuant to new ordinances passed in California that may modify the Three Strikes sentencing requirements.
“I’m praying so hard for that,” Vincent said. “Melvin has an incredible desire to give back.”
Vincent, who is also an artist, said he was “floored” by Thomas’ work.
“He puts so much of himself into his artwork,” Vincent said, adding that Thomas’ life is now infused with Judaism.
“He davens three times a day and lays tefillin,” Vincent said. “And he tries to keep kosher. He’s truly a baal tsuvha.”
Vincent has learned a lot from Thomas, he said, and the two men have become so close the relationship feels like family.
“When I saw his drawing on the bima, I was kvelling all over the place,” Vincent said. “I had such naches. He was blessing us from 200 miles away.
“Melvin inspires me every day,” Vincent continued. “We’re all broken in some way, but we are not beyond redemption. Every Jewish soul counts.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.