Guest Blog

TONY GITTELSON

Days before Christmas, 2014, Miguel Lugo was released from Centinela State Prison after serving 18 years. He was 36 years old and had spent half his life behind bars. Around the same time, Steve Klatzker, a retired LAUSD teacher, and an active Ikar Path organizer, was wondering what to do in retirement. How Miguel and Steve encountered each other and enriched each other’s lives is truly a story of T’shevuah, or redemption in action.

Miguel was discharged from prison with $200 to start his new life—and little else. When he asked his probation officer where he should go to find help reentering a world he no longer recognized, the P.O. shrugged, “Try a church…” Fortunately, in prison Miguel heard about Homeboys. Taking one bus and three metros from his home in Long Beach—suffering a debilitating panic attack along the way—Miguel made it to Homeboys. “I thought all I needed was my tattoos removed,” he says, “but I needed so much more.”

As it turns out, Steve Klazker was in a prison of another kind. Some twenty years ago, during a Rosh Hashanah dinner, the conversation turned to “hopes and dreams.” Steve, an administrator at a large law firm, was startled to realize, “I had none.” Shaken to his core, he made an abrupt mid-life change: he quit his law job, got his teaching certificate, and found his inspiration teaching special needs children. Now retired after 18 years, he wasn’t sure what to do with his days—until, at a Prop 47 workshop at Homeboys, he saw a sign asking for tutors. Within days, Steve was partnered with Miguel.

Fresh out of prison, Miguel was feeling panicked and overwhelmed. He didn’t know where to begin. The one thing he knew: he wanted to learn to read. The product of a father he never knew, and an absentee single mother (of five), Miguel dropped out of school in the 6th grade. He lived on the street, crashed on couches, and learned how to survive. “I wish I had paid attention back then,” he says wistfully, “but I couldn’t even think about school.”

Together, with Steve, Miguel started over. Through intense hard work, Miguel has made “amazing progress.” They have also forged a very close bond. “I love this work to pieces,” Steve admits.

Twice a week, Steve travels from Playa Vista, and Miguel from Long Beach, so they can meet on the common ground of Homeboys. Miguel is amazed Steve is so giving of his time. “He shows up, no one is paying him, so I gotta give 100% of myself.” The feeling is mutual. Just eight days after surgery to have a pacemaker installed, Steve was back at Homeboys. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I’m grateful to have Miguel and Homeboys, and for this meaningful work.” After a thoughtful pause, he adds, “As a teacher, you never know whose lives you will touch.”

Of his own odyssey, his adjustment to life after prison, Miguel is disarmingly Talmudic. “I feel like a Jew wandering in the desert, learning to be free.” And even as he struggles with his own freedom, he remains deeply committed to those he left behind, still in prison, and to furthering the work of Prop 47 and the Fair Chance Initiative. “They have no voice, so I gotta speak for them. I have to succeed.” His face breaks into a soft smile, “We’re the new Jews in L.A. crossing the Red Sea…”

Each in their own way, and in their work together, Steve and Miguel breathe fresh life into the essence of T’shuvah.