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A Jewish reporter goes inside Rikers for a new book on a notorious jail

(New York Jewish Week) — Reuven Blau, son of a Holocaust survivor, suggests his father may have inspired him to strive for change within New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail.

“There’s this subconscious drive to change things, or to help people in a way that you don’t understand,” said Blau. “Inside Rikers, you realize how difficult it is, and how terrible the circumstances are for everyone involved.” 

A reporter for The City who studied at a yeshiva in Brooklyn, Blau is the co-author, with Graham Rayman, of “Rikers: An Oral History,” a new book on a jail that makes frequent headlines for the violence and despair trapped within its walls. The book seeks to humanize the people inside the jail — both inmates and the people who work there — and tell their stories.  

Its aim, Blau told the New York Jewish Week, is to amplify the voices of “people who are rarely seen as people,” he said.  

The jail complex, which opened in 1932, has long been criticized for its harsh conditions, which include horror stories of inmates caged in tiny showers, sleeping on excrement-smeared floors, suicides, beatings and more. Many have called for its closure since the 1970s. As of Dec. 14, 19 people died at Rikers in 2022 — the highest death rate since 2013. 

Rikers Island, the jail complex located in the East River that has been open since 1932, is the site of a constant stream of violent news and headlines over the past few decades. (The City/Ben Fractenberg)

The reporters spent close to three years interviewing about 130 people, with most of the conversations taking place over the phone or in person with people already out of jail. They also made several trips to the jail complex.

One of the people they spoke with was Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer Seed, a Jewish chaplain on Rikers. Seed spoke about singing Shabbat songs with an inmate who suddenly got up and punched him.  

“He was a pretty strong person, but I only ended up with a bloody lip. He might have been mumbling something, but I don’t remember what he said specifically. I was quite shocked. Everything happened so quickly,” Seed said. “I was totally in shock because I had known him for a while and he was the last person I thought would hurt me.”

Seed then remarked that he was able to work with mental health staff and ultimately managed to have a good relationship with the inmate after the incident.

“It was such a revealing story, how there are people who are there to help others,” Blau said. “And they become aware of how people are misplaced there.”

Prior to joining The City, Blau had worked at the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Despite his deep reporting experience, Blau, 43, noted that it’s been “the weirdest thing” to become the “voice” of Rikers. “I’m this whole yeshiva guy,” Blau said. “I’d never been to jail. It wasn’t an issue I was familiar with at all in any way.”

Blau, who grew up in Denver and went to a yeshiva high school in Chicago, said that he remains observant. “Big cholent fan,” said Blau, who lives in New Jersey with his wife, Sara, who had a baby girl in May. “My favorite part of the culture is the social service network that exists in many communities.” 

He fell into reporting after majoring in English at Brooklyn College. Before working for the tabloids, Blau wrote for The Chief, a newspaper dedicated to labor and local politics, where he covered the union that represents New York’s corrections officers, among other things.  

In 2011, he landed a scoop with the Post about a “jailhouse bar mitzvah” which revealed that correction officers and supervisors attended a lavish Jewish coming-of-age cermony behind bars at a downtown Manhattan jail whose costs were carried by taxpayers.

“I always had some foot in the jail coverage,” Blau said of his time working in the news industry. 

His co-writer, Rayman, covers criminal justice for the Daily News. Rayman told the New York Jewish Week that he doesn’t think people can read the book and “come away with a feeling that anything other than that particular jail system is deeply flawed and in need of major changes.” 

The city is required by law to close Rikers Island by 2027, yet many are casting doubt over whether that will be possible. 

“I really hope that there’s not a journalist behind me in 20 or 30 years that is writing about the same issues, because I think that means the coverage we’ve been doing hasn’t made an effect,” Blau said. “I look at it through that lens. I try to come up with ways that are going to change things for the better in a real meaningful way.” 


The post A Jewish reporter goes inside Rikers for a new book on a notorious jail appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Obituaries

Dr. NATHAN WISEMAN

Wiseman, Nathan Elliot
1944 – 2023
Nathan, our beloved husband, Dad, and Zaida, died unexpectedly on December 13, 2023. Nathan was born on December 16, 1944, in Winnipeg, MB, the eldest of Sam and Cissie Wiseman’s three children.
He is survived by his loving wife Eva; children Sam (Natalie) and Marni (Shane); grandchildren Jacob, Jonah, Molly, Isabel, Nicole, and Poppy; brother David (Sherrill); sister Barbara (Ron); sister-in-law Agi (Sam) and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Nathan grew up in the north end of Winnipeg surrounded by his loving family. He received his MD from the University of Manitoba in 1968, subsequently completed his General Surgery residency at the University of Manitoba and went on to complete a fellowship in Paediatric Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard University. His surgeon teachers and mentors were world renowned experts in the specialty, and even included a Nobel prize winner.
His practice of Paediatric Surgery at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg spanned almost half a century. He loved his profession and helping patients, even decades later often recounting details about the many kiddies on whom he had operated. Patients and their family members would commonly approach him on the street and say, “Remember me Dr. Wiseman?”. And he did! His true joy was caring for his patients with compassion, patience, unwavering commitment, and excellence. He was a gifted surgeon and leaves a profound legacy. He had no intention of ever fully retiring and operated until his very last day. He felt privileged to have the opportunity to mentor, support and work with colleagues, trainees, nurses, and others health care workers that enriched his day-to-day life and brought him much happiness and fulfillment. He was recognized with many awards and honors throughout his career including serving as Chief of Surgery of Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, President of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, and as a Governor of the American College of Surgeons. Most importantly of all he helped and saved the lives of thousands and thousands of Manitoba children. His impact on the generations of children he cared for, and their families, is truly immeasurable.
Nathan’s passion for golf was ignited during his childhood summers spent at the Winnipeg Beach Golf Course. Southwood Golf and Country Club has been his second home since 1980. His game was excellent and even in his last year he shot under his age twice! He played an honest “play as it lies” game. His golf buddies were true friends and provided him much happiness both on and off the course for over forty years. However, his passion for golf extended well beyond the eighteenth hole. He immersed himself in all aspects of the golf including collecting golf books, antiques, and memorabilia. He was a true scholar of the game, reading golf literature, writing golf poetry, and even rebuilding and repairing antique golf clubs. Unquestionably, his knowledge and passion for the game was limitless.
Nathan approached his many woodworking and workshop projects with zeal and creativity, and he always had many on the go. During the winter he was an avid curler, and in recent years he also enjoyed the study of Yiddish. Nathan never wasted any time and lived his life to the fullest.
Above all, Nathan was a loving husband, father, grandfather, son, father-in-law, son-in-law, uncle, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, and granduncle. He loved his family and lived for them, and this love was reciprocated. He met his wife Eva when he was a 20-year-old medical student, and she was 18 years old. They were happily married for 56 years. They loved each other deeply and limitlessly and were proud of each other’s accomplishments. He loved the life and the family they created together. Nathan was truly the family patriarch, an inspiration and a mentor to his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and many others. He shared his passion for surgery and collecting with his son and was very proud to join his daughter’s medical practice (he loved Thursdays). His six grandchildren were his pride and joy and the centre of his world.
Throughout his life Nathan lived up to the credo “May his memory be a blessing.” His life was a blessing for the countless newborns, infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers who he cared for, for his colleagues, for his friends and especially for his family. We love him so much and there are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
A graveside funeral was held at the Shaarey Zedek cemetery on December 15, 2023. Pallbearers were his loving grandchildren. The family would like to extend their gratitude to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Congregation.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, in the name of Dr. Nathan Wiseman.

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A number of speakers addressed the crowd of 800, including Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia Congregation; Members of Parliament Ben Carr & Marty Morantz; Yolanda Papini-Pollock of Winnipeg Friends of Israel; Paula McPherson, former Brock Corydon teacher; and Gustavo Zentner, President of the Jewish Federation.

Ben Carr

Click here to watch Ben Carr’s remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crfREGNRKfg

Marty Morantz

Click here to watch a video of Marty Morantz’s remarks: https://studio.youtube.com/video/zHzC-iaqivg/ed

Gustavo Zentner

Click here to watch a video of Gustavo Zentner’s remarks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3M_cCYuLgs

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