About Matir Asurim

Who We Are

We are a collection of Chaplains, Rabbis, Cantors, Kohanot/Hebrew Priestesses, advocates, activists, volunteers, loved ones of incarcerated people, and people with direct experience of incarceration. We are an all volunteer group who began meeting in 2021. We live and work across Turtle Island, in territories, cities, and rural settings of the US and Canada.


Matir Asurim: Jewish Care Network for Incarcerated People connects Jewish spiritual, cultural, and communal resources to people who have experienced incarceration.

Matir Asurim literally translates as “The One Who Frees Captives.” This phrase from Jewish liturgy refers to God’s power to act for freedom and/or humanity’s ability to manifest godliness through working for freedom.


We are striving toward a world free from oppression, where aspects of social identity like race, class, and gender no longer limit our safety, opportunities, and agency to live into the fullness of our sacred potential.

We are striving toward a world where individuals are mutually accountable to one another and where wrongdoing is addressed through reparative and transformative justice, guaranteeing the human dignity of all parties.

We are striving toward a world where all people are provided with the conditions for healing trauma and for teshuvah (repentance/restoration), surrounded by resources, guidance, and social support networks.

We are striving toward a world where nobody is isolated and everyone has opportunities to connect to something larger than ourselves—whether to community, culture, or spirituality. Within that world, we envision a Judaism that is radically welcoming and accessible to all seekers.

We Believe

Incarceration does not keep our communities healthy and safe.  Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous people, people of color, queer and trans people, immigrants, disabled people, and poor and working class people. To fight for a world where prisons are obsolete is to fight all systems of oppression. 

Incarceration cuts individuals off from the social, cultural, spiritual, and educational supports they need and deserve as human beings. While people are incarcerated, those on the outside must ensure they are provided with opportunities to explore their religious traditions as part of the rights and dignities that befit their humanity.

We know that incarcerated people have incredible Torah to share and are essential members of our Jewish communities. All Jewish communities will be strengthened by creating more connections across prison walls. We believe that people who are directly impacted by mass incarceration are the visionaries and leaders of all anti-carceral work.

Guiding Jewish Concepts (Revised 2024)**

  • B’tselem Elokim [divine image]: All people are created in the image of the Divine. We all carry a spark of divine goodness as well as the capacity for creative action and transformation.
    • SOURCE TEXT: וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם
    • “And God created humankind in the divine image. In the image of God did the Divine create them.” — Genesis 1:27. More on MA and Btzelem Elohim

  • Teshuva [repentance/return]: We believe in human resilience and transformation, in our ability to make amends after experiencing and/or perpetrating harm. We practice this relationally as conflict arises within our organizing, and also strive to create a world that uplifts restorative accountability processes rather than punishment.
    • SOURCE TEXT: Text by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a beloved Eastern European rabbi in the late 18th century:
    •  אִם אַתָּה מַאֲמִין, שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְתַקֵּן
    • “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can repair.” — Likutei Moharan [collected teachings] Part 2:112

  • Refua Shleima [Complete Healing]: We work towards collective healing and wholeness, striving to restore balanced relationships within the broader interconnected web of creation and to heal the traumatic effects of white supremacy, colonization, and other systems of oppression that affect our minds and bodies.
    • SOURCE TEXT: Amidah Prayer, the oldest composed liturgy in Jewish tradition:
    • רְפָאֵֽנוּ יְהֹוָה וְנֵרָפֵא הוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ וְנִוָּשֵֽׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵֽנוּ אָֽתָּה וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּוֹתֵֽינוּ כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָֽתָּה
    • R’fa’einu, Adonai, v’neirafei
    • Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed… More on MA and Refua Shleima

  • Panim el panim [face-to-face]/Approaching: Seeking “face-to-face” interactions, despite difference, distance and bars; approaching one another as equals and striving to work in genuine relationship.
    • כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב־הָאָדָם לָאָדָם׃
    • “As face answers to face in water,So does one person’s heart to another.” — Proverbs 27:19
    • …וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה
    • “Then Judah approached him… “– Genesis 44:18. More on MA and Panim El Panim

  • Learning from every person: Learning from every person requires honoring the contributions and voices of people who have been systemically silenced, including through incarceration. In our conversations, we strive to hold awareness around differences in identity and power dynamics.
    • SOURCE TEXT: Jewish legal text from ~200 CE, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors), 4:1:
    • בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט) מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי
    • “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).”

  • Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh Bazeh [All Jews Are Responsible, One to the Other]/Communal Responsibility: “All Yisrael is responsible, one for the other.” Jews have many universalist obligations, but we also have a special duty to other Jews.
    • שכל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
    • “All Yisrael is responsible, one for the other.”Shevuot 39a. More on MA and Aravim Zeh Bazeh

**This revised formulation of Matir Asurim’s guiding Jewish concepts was approved early in 2024 by MA’s outside organizing group; they are still under review by inside members and so still DRAFT. Here is the 2021 version.

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Jewish Sources and Discussion for Guiding Concepts

B’tzelem Elokim

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא

וּמִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ

“It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (Gen 1:27), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. Again, for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father” — Sanhedrin 4:5

The bible text, and the ancient rabbinic discussion around it, are the basis for Jewish understanding of human rights. These teachings obligate Jews to treat every human being as worthy of care that recognizes the spark of divinity in all of us.

Matir Asurim strives to put this into practice within carceral systems in the U.S. and Canada. We work, often in small ways within challenging systems, for the dignity, respect, compassion, and joy due to incarcerated individuals, returning citizens, and their loved ones. A vision of the spark of divinity in all humans informs all our work, within the organization and beyond.

Language notes: The root word translated as “destroy” [אִבֵּד] here can also mean “to be pressed” or “in despair.” In this sense, causing one individual to “be pressed” or “in despair” has a ripple effect on that person’s entire world, including many other individuals; and helping one individual avoid being pressed or in despair affects an entire world, too.

Ha-m’abeid nefesh achat mi’yisrael” means, literally: “anyone who destroys a soul from Yisrael.” Jewish scholarship across centuries has argued about whether this teaching applies only to the preservation of Jewish souls. Surrounding text in Sanhedrin does not use this clause, “mi-yisrael.” however. In addition, it is often noted that this Mishnaic discussion arises in the context of Cain and Abel, neither of whom are “from Yisrael,” and that “ha-adam,” the earthling (or “Adam”), of Genesis 1:27, is likewise not a Jew.

Panim el panim

“Then Judah approached him [vayigash eilav yehudah]” (Gen 44:18):

Background: Judah faces a powerful leader in Pharaoh’s court who has a member of the family in custody, accused of a serious crime. At this point, Judah and his brothers do not yet know that the leader they face is their long-lost brother, Joseph.

This question: The men are already in the same room. So why does the text tell us Judah vayigash, “drew near” or “came in contact”?

One answer: The 14th Century German scholar, known as Ba’al HaTurim, says: The last letters of these three words — vayigaSH eilaV yehudaH, shin-vav-hey — spell “shaveh, שָׁוֶה [equal].” Judah’s step forward changes the dynamic and allows the brothers to speak directly, as equals.

Another answer: “As face answers to face in water, So does one person’s heart to another (Proverbs 27:19). Judah’s step forward was an attempt to create a face-to-face encounter, inspiring compassion. This was a struggle for Judah, to step across apparent cultural differences and the gap in their positions. The result, ultimately, was reconciliation between the brothers. (based on Or Hachayim, 18th Century teacher from Morocco),

Maimonides notes that three biblical words, including nagash, “to approach,” are used to mean contact, to become nearer in space, or to approach intellectually (Guide for the Perplexed, Part I, Chapter 18). Contemporary psychology talks about the relationship of these ideas in the theory of “proximity.” Being nearer to someone — in terms of contact or physical closeness — can lead to greater understanding.

Refua Shleima

Amidah Prayer, the oldest composed liturgy in Jewish tradition:

רְפָאֵֽנוּ יְהֹוָה וְנֵרָפֵא הוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ וְנִוָּשֵֽׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵֽנוּ אָֽתָּה וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּוֹתֵֽינוּ כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָֽתָּה

R’fa’einu, Adonai, v’neirafei
Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed
hoshi’einu v’nivashei’ah
save us and we shall be saved
ki t’hilateinu atah
for You are our praise.
v’ha’alei r’fu’ah sh’leimah
bring complete healing
l’khol macoteinu
for all of our ailments
ki eil melekh
because God, Ruler,
rofei ne’eman v’rachaman atah
a faithful and compassionate healer are you.

Mi Sheberach Prayer, another healing prayer recited on Shabbat:

 הַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִמָלֵא רַחֲמִים עָלָיו לְהַחֲלִימו וּלְרַפְּאתו וּלְהַחֲזִיקו וּלְהַחֲיותו, וְיִשְׁלַח לו מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם…רְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף…הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. וְנאמַר אָמֵן

Hakadosh barukh hu May the Holy Blessed One
yimalei rachamim alav
be filled with mercy for [insert person you are praying for]
l’hachalimo ul’rapo’to
to restore them to health and to cure them
ul’hachaziko ul’hachayoto
and to strengthen them and to invigorate them.
v’yish’lach lo m’heirah
And may God send promptly
r’fu’ah sh’leimah min hashamaiyim
complete healing from the heavens…
r’fu’at hanefesh ur’fu’at haguf
healing of the soul and healing of the body
v’no’mar amein,
and let us say Amen.

Kol Yisrael Zeh b’Zeh

In Leviticus 26, God promises great reward if the people obey the commandments as outlined and warns of terrible punishments if they fail to do so. One of the punishment verses says: “And they shall stumble one upon another” (Leviticus 26:37). The Talmud takes this to mean that Jews can cause one another to stumble by failing to assist one another in honoring the commandments. Therefore, we are “all responsible one for the other” (Shevuot 39a). If we have the opportunity to prevent a member of the community from doing wrong, and do not intervene, we are responsible for the wrong.

This obligation is understood by many Jewish teachers to mean that we must help one another in matters of ritual, keeping kosher, etc. It is also interpreted to mean that we must not allow conditions that can lead to crime: lack of housing, food, education, etc.

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