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Congregants Welcome An Ex-Offender
Bob Lankin and two other members of Beth Sholom Congregation stood near 30th Street Station on Tuesday night awaiting the arrival of a friend.
A double-decker bus pulled up next to the curb and a small older man wearing a baseball cap stepped off. He had a piece of gum in his mouth. It was the first piece Hugo “Manny” Bruno had chewed in 25 years and it tasted, he said, like freedom.
Bruno’s release from Graterford Prison marked the end of a long chapter in the life of this 77-year-old Jewish man convicted of rape. And he was starting over with the help of Beth Sholom congregants, three of whom, wearing the eager looks of a family waiting beyond security at an airport, took turns embracing Bruno as he descended the bus steps.
They had been preparing for his release from prison for months. They had found him an apartment and furnished it with two beds, two nightstands and two lamps. He needed clothes, which they had, and food. Their next stop would be dinner.
Six months earlier, Lankin had received a call from Graterford Prison.
Bruno told Lankin he was getting out after 25 years behind bars. Lankin thought, “Great, he’s coming for dinner.” But his release turned out to be more complicated; he needed Lankin’s help.
The two had met decades earlier, shorly after Bruno arrived at the prison, slated to serve 15 to 30 years for raping his ex-girlfriend. Lankin was one among a handful of Beth Sholom members who about once a month, usually on a Saturday, would drive 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia to the state correctional center in Montgomery County.
Once there, Lankin recalled, they had to pass through security checks more burdensome than the ones at airports. Then they climbed a narrow flight of stairs and stepped into a small chapel with a Torah, an ark and Jewish artwork. That chapel was declared a fire hazard in recent years, and the Jewish Congregation of Graterford Prison — a Reform group that usually includes about eight inmates, along with two or three volunteers — now meets in an open gymnasium-like space.
Bruno was one of the few inmates in the congregation who had the potential to one day leave the prison. He was also the oldest member of the group by more than a decade. For the last five or so years, he had been telling volunteers that he was close to getting out.
When he called Lankin in June, Bruno’s parole had been approved but in order to actually leave prison, he needed to arrange for housing. Lankin said he knew that if he didn’t start to build a life for Bruno outside of Graterford, the man would never get out.
There are no excuses for Bruno’s crime, Lankin said. But he had witnessed how the man was remorseful over what he had done to an ex-girlfriend, how he never missed a Shabbat service, how he always asked the volunteers about their families, how he ate the same meal at breakfast and lunch each day for more than 20 years in order to keep kosher.
Why does this man not deserve a second chance, Lankin wondered.
“As a society, we always like to have somebody to look down on,” Lankin said. “For many years, it was Jews and then it was African-Americans and then gay people and now it’s ex-offenders.”
Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin of Beth Sholom in Elkins Park praises his congregants who made the regular Shabbat visits. Such acts of chesed (kindness) are an obligation, he said, because of the Jewish idea that all people are created in God’s image, a principle that doesn’t change when they commit a terrible act.
“To express some humanity and compassion to those who have been so much forgotten and who probably wanted to be forgotten, that is a great act of loving kindness,” Glanzberg-Krainin said.
For parolees such as Bruno — a convicted sex offender, a senior citizen, a man with no family — the prospect of reintegrating into society is especially tough. Megan’s Law in Pennsylvania requires convicted sex offenders to register their home address for residents to view online. It had also restricted them from living within 2,500 feet of any child-care facility, until the state Supreme Court struck that provision down.
Lankin had difficulty finding a landlord who would rent to Bruno. He estimates he was turned down by about a dozen properties in the Rhawnhurst area. He planned to put the lease in his name, but still had to inform the owner who would be living there. Some just never called back, others were less discrete and told him they would never rent to such a person.
He eventually found a Jewish property owner who agreed to rent to Bruno. Lankin paid the first and last month’s rent and the security deposit.
Meanwhile, Lankin had started telling people Bruno’s story, and each time he told it, another hand emerged ready to help. Without Lankin asking, the Beth Sholom Men’s Club donated $1,000. The synagogue also had a Friends of Jewish Congregation of Graterford Prison fund, specifically designated for Jewish inmates who are paroled, which provided $500. Business contacts, friends and members of organizations such as the Rotary Club and Brotherhood Lodge 126 also donated, he said.
On Sunday, just days before Bruno’s release, Beth Sholom volunteers gathered at his new apartment to move furniture and clean the place. The beds and nightstands were donated by a Jewish family who had sold their home.
Richard Heller, a Beth Sholom member, was among the six men readying the apartment on Sunday and waited at the bus on Tuesday. He has been visiting Graterford for the last five years. He likened the experience to attending a Jewish service in a foreign country.
“In a Jewish service, there is something about that feeling of solidarity with all Jews everywhere,” Heller said. “It’s a way of adding Judaism to their lives when it’s really so difficult for them to have these opportunities.”
The volunteers rarely talk to the inmates about their crimes. Heller said he and Bruno often discussed music and current events.
Many of the reasons for their incarcerations are serious enough that the perpetrators won’t ever leave Graterford.
“It’s like if I came to your house, I wouldn’t ask you what you made,” Lankin said. “It’s the same as going in there and asking ‘What’s your crime?’ ”
Lankin said the volunteers’ priority now is ensuring that Bruno remains a free man. None of them foresee Bruno committing another crime, but there are still strict rules about curfews and appointments that parolees must follow or be sent back to prison. And he’s going to need to find a job to support himself.
“He knows how hard it is going to be coming out when everything isn’t provided for you,” Lankin said.
Last weekend, Lankin and his wife went shopping for clothes for Bruno. His wife, Holly, picked up a pair of maroon pants from a rack and asked Lankin what he thought. Without understanding why, Lankin said his heart started to pound and he became nervous. Then he remembered. The inmates inside Graterford wear maroon jump suits. No, those pants won’t work, he told his wife, who had never seen the outfits. He would not subject his friend to a piece of clothing that might remind him of 25 years of captivity.
To hear that sort of consideration, and the casual way Lankin talks about helping Bruno, you would think he was just helping an old friend moving to town. If Bruno returns the rent money, Lankin said, that’s fine. If not, that’s OK, too.
“He’s my buddy,” Lankin said. “You know if you were my buddy and you were in jail and it cost me a couple thousand dollars to get you out, I would do it.”