ML: At the beginning of the Kol Nidre service, which inaugurates Yom Kippur, the Chazzon boldly declares, “We are permitted to pray with sinners.” There are historical reasons for why this declaration is made having to do with Jews who were coerced into abandoning the faith during the Spanish Inquisition. Contemporary rabbis invoke it as a reminder to their congregations that, indeed, we are all sinners and in need of permission to even pray.
Today, we are going to hear from a new member of Agudas Achim, Larry Davidson. Larry very quickly has become a regular shabbat participant and has beautifully and competently led portions of the service. But that’s not why he’s standing up here with me today. Larry is an individual who is guilty of extraordinary sins. He is also an individual of extraordinary courage. Today, in advance of Yom Kippur, we have a very special opportunity. We may learn from Larry’s life journey, from the terrible mistakes, the anguish of facing severe consequences, and the redemptive process of t’shuvah – repentance – and, as our tradition affirms – atonement.
LJD: Shana Tova. Some of you know me since I have been coming for a few months now. And, if anyone has asked me why I moved back to Columbus, I probably said something about friends, a job, and a fresh start. This is all true, but here’s the whole story.
In January, I was released after serving almost 8 years in Federal Prison. I was a lawyer in Las Vegas, and I stole a considerable amount of money from my clients. My crimes have no decent explanation, other than I was lazy, dishonest, and just not a good person for a long time. There was no excuse or rationalization for what I did. I wasn’t framed, I had an excellent Public Defender, and the Judge and Prosecutor were fair and professional.
ML: Larry, I want to acknowledge the incredible courage for you to stand here and be so candid with us. At the risk of causing you even more discomfort, I want to commend your honesty and transparency. For me, what’s most striking about what you just said is that you seem to bear the people and system which punished you for your crimes no ill will. Contrary to stereotype – that the guilty deny their guilt. You declare openly that the prosecutor and court were fair and just in assessing your guilt and imposing consequences. This is exactly the attitude assumed for us by our Rosh Hashanah prayers. I assume that realization did not magically occur the moment you faced sentencing, but requires hard work and experiences on your part. Could you help us to understand how you achieved this?
LJD: It was not a short journey from one to the other. For a long time, I was mad at everyone in the system. I hadn’t yet accepted what I had done. I thought I was being singled out and treated unfairly. At one point, I had the opportunity to flee to Israel and escape punishment, which I did. During my 5 years there, I realized that I would never be able to come back, would never be able to see my family, and last, but not least, it was time to take responsibility for what I had done. I notified the authorities in the States that I was returning, they met me at the airport and I was taken into custody. Eventually, I agreed to plead guilty and serve a sentence of 105 months in prison. While I was in prison, 3 things happened, all of which are directly related to being Jewish. First, the prison where I served most of my sentence was a place called Terminal Island, just south of Los Angeles. It has the largest Jewish prison population west of Chicago. Shortly after I arrived, the only other inmate who knew Hebrew, the Siddur and the Holidays was released. So I was suddenly thrust into the position of leader of the Jewish Community. I had to plan all the holidays, lead all the prayers, and answer all the other inmates’ questions.
They say that the best way to learn is by teaching, and the position I was in led me to learning a lot more about what it means to be a Jew, how I think G-d wants us to lead our lives, and how badly I had failed in that respect.
That leads to event #2. All of my friends from Israel got in touch with me. At the time, it was very unexpected, and incredibly moving. I was in Israel as a fugitive, so I had to lie to everyone about everything. I would have understood if nobody wanted to contact me. Instead they all did. They all wrote in one way or another about hating the sin, not the sinner, and about everybody having a past, and everybody having the opportunity to do Tshuva. Plus, it was very meaningful just to stay in contact with Eretz Yisrael, which has always meant so much to me.
ML: The concept of “confessing our sins” is not unique to Judaism, but in some traditions it is a private, confidential affair. In our prayers, we confess outloud and publically. Still, our communal “confessions” are impersonal and not particularly revealing. Could you explain for us the power of genuinely and publically accepting and confessing one’s mistakes, and how you are able to muster the strength to do that?
LJD: Yes, and that leads me to the most important part of my journey, which was my Mom. She’s the one in my family with the rock solid moral compass that I was lacking. Our relationship was a little rocky for a long time. I now realize of course that that was entirely on me. It took a long time, but I finally realized how much I had disappointed her, and why. I now realize that being dishonest was way more disappointing to her than if I had just admitted I was a failure. After this realization, I knew I had to make very big changes in my life. I knew I had to be more honest, with myself and everyone else. I had to stop thinking only of myself, in everything I did. I had to start treating others respectfully. I even changed the way I speak. Mom and Dad drove down to Terminal Island at least once a year while I was there. Once, when my Dad got up to get something from the vending machine, my Mom told me that she was very impressed with how I had changed, that it was like I wasn’t even the same person. That was the moment when I knew I was on the right track.
ML: Classical Judaism emphasizes the role of rebuke in the repentance process. Maimonides insists that every community must go so far as to appoint a communal official whose role it is to chastise the community and turn them to repentance. Maimonides writes that this official should be someone who is “loved” as well as respected by the community. It sounds like your mom filled that role for you. Could you describe for us how others, such as your mom and your friends, balanced their rebukes with the love and support needed for your success?
LJD: Yes, I wouldn’t call it “tough love”. It was more like they all set everything up and showed me the two paths I could follow, and then made it clear it was up to me to choose which path I was going to take.
ML: How has coming back to Columbus been part of that?
LJD: Well, unfortunately, I have come to realize that you find out who your true friends are when you get arrested. Some people that I thought were friends wouldn’t even return a phone call. But when I wrote to my best friend from college, even though we really hadn’t spoken in some time, he immediately wrote to me and asked me to come back to Columbus when I was released. He said he would make sure I had a job and a place to stay, and that all my old friends were still in my corner. And, he followed through on all of it.
ML: “Starting life over with a fresh slate” is a fairly common theme in Jewish thinking on repentance and atonement. How do you deal with the tension between striving to become a “new person” and carrying the weight of knowing your actions caused lasting damage?
LJD: I think I’m doing OK. I kind of agree with my Mom. I frequently think that I’m not even the same person I was before. Also, it’s a daily battle. Fortunately, I remember the person I was, and I remember where that person ended up. Now, I want to add that just because I’m finally living right doesn’t make me a hero. My crimes had very real victims, to whom I will be paying restitution for a long time, and I still think of the damage I caused to people’s lives, to the integrity of the profession, and to my family, all the time.
ML: Has participating in the Agudas Achim community been able to help you?
LJD: Well, during my life I have gone from sort of Orthodox to Conservative, to nothing, to Orthodox, and back to Conservative. I can say, though, that I think this is the first time in my life that I am experiencing Judaism with the right kavanah, not just going through the motions. Certainly, the folks here have had a lot to do with that as well, with how welcoming everyone has been to me. It’s also the first time in my life that I genuinely care about what G-d thinks of me, and I hope he is pleased with the person I’ve become. I would like to add that this is not the end of my struggle; it’s also not the end of the conversation. I don’t mind if, later, anyone has questions, comments, or advice.
ML: There’s a hasidic story about the Ruzinher Rebbe that once a man asked him how to repent. The rebbe replied, “You didn’t need to ask me how to sin. If you know how to sin, you know how to repent.” Repentance is a matter of personal inner strength, not information sharing or book-learning. The individual alone knows what to do. It is something found inside each and everyone of us, waiting to be discovered. Larry, you have allowed us a glimpse into your personal journey of repentance. Each of us has a unique experience and therefore a unique path to follow. Hearing your story inspires me to reflect upon and examine more carefully my own. My hope and Rosh Hashanah prayer is for all of us here today to find this gift in our own lives. Thank you and Shannah tovah; may the new year bring you, me, and each & everyone of us ever closer to becoming the person in G-d’s eyes we know we should be.