Zipple - The Jewish Supersite
Home > Holidays > Story
Prisoners find bars surround attempts to observe Yom Kippur
By BRIAN SEIDMAN
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 12, 2000
NEW YORK--According to tradition, each Jew stands before God during the High
Holidays and is judged based on his or her deeds during the past year.
For this reason, many see the holidays as a time to make peace with the people
in their lives--perhaps none more than Jews in prison.
"Here, you have people who've got a lot to get right with their fellow
man," said Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International,
a nonprofit organization involved in outreach to Jewish prisoners. As the sole
Jewish chaplain of his northwest region, he uses the High Holidays as a time
that facilitates apologies.
As part of its High Holidays preparation, the organization sends religious items
to prisons, as well as an estimated 30,000 packs of Rosh Hashanah cards to inmates,
including "teshuvah cards." Teshuvah, or repentance, is what Jews
seek in the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
"Because a prisoner obviously can't apologize in person or call people
necessarily, it explains the custom," Friedman said. After a traditional
teshuvah message, the card has a page for one to write a personal apology.
"When it's put in the correct context, it's much better. If out of the
blue they wrote a letter, it wouldn't be taken the same way."
High Holidays services in prison are often abbreviated because many prisoners
are still required to work on those days.
In addition, services are frequently interrupted by daily "counts,"
where the prisoners are lined up along the walls or returned to their cells
to be counted.
Availability of Jewish clergy varies, so sometimes High Holidays services will
be lead by inmates. But even this can be problematic.
"To say in Judaism 'to lead a service' is just to set the pace. They're
really not leading," said Friedman.
What officials are always fearful of in prison are things like gang leaders,
people organizing leadership in that manner, he added.
But each prison differs in how they allow for religious life. Greater ford Prison
in Pennsylvania allows prisoners to not work on the High Holidays. It also boasts
two Torahs and two shears.
Greater ford, which has an estimated 167 Jewish inmates, has a Jewish Men's
Club, where members pay dues toward activities for the congregation, including
Rosh Hashanah cards.
"We have to really keep a close watch that our congregation is not swamped,"
said Rabbi Rave Sol off, who serves prisoners at Greater ford.
"We welcome those who are members of our congregation," he said, adding
"there's always somebody who's a 'maybe.'"
When one inmate claimed Jewish roots, Sol off said, the rabbi checked with the
undertaker who conducted the inmate's mother's funeral to make sure.
"If he wants to claim Jewish heritage, anarchically he has the right to
do so, but we're not going to just allow him to assume full membership to the
congregation until he's learned enough and demonstrated enough interest over
a long period of time."
At a prison in Jackson, Mich., the experience is much the opposite.
According to Rabbi Herschel Finman, there are fewer than 60 Jews incarcerated
in the entire state, and the state Department of Corrections has decided it's
more "cost-effective to ignore them."
Among the prison inmates' difficulties, Finman said, is being able to fast on
Yom Kippur. To be able to break their fast, he noted, prisoners sometimes must
risk punishment by taking food from the kitchen to their cells.
Jewish Prisoner Services tries to arrange for observant prisoners to receive
"fast bags" to break their fast at the end of Yom Kippur, but Friedman
said the process is "like pulling teeth. I'd say at this point, maybe half
of the prisons accommodate us with things like fast bags and work proscription."
But more than the difficulties of Jews in prison, Friedman said, the Jewish
community often doesn't realize the plight of the prisoners' families.
"The families are doing the time, too," he said. "Usually it's
the breadwinner off in prison, and the families are financially devastated,
but moreover, they're stigmatized," often reluctant to participate with
the Jewish community where they don't find support.
Rabbi Yosef Loschak of the Chabad movement in Santa Barbara, Calif., has worked
with prisoners for more than 10 years.
Loschak recalled telling one prisoner's wife to say that she was a single parent
because people would have more compassion for her that way than if she told
them her husband was in prison.
Friedman said that "normalizing" the lives of prisoner's families
includes enrolling the children in Jewish day schools or camps--or helping families
buy formal clothing so that they, too, can attend High Holidays services.
"That sounds like something pretty basic," he said, "but you
wouldn't imagine how meaningful that is."
Loschak said that around the High Holidays, he tried to emphasize the "spiritual
aspect" of the time. "Though the body is incarcerated, the spirit
can still rise above that. You can improve yourself, become a better person."
Friedman said that in Jewish law, a sentenced person is treated as innocent.
Helping a Jewish inmate look forward and be rehabilitated, he said, ultimately
helps the entire community.
In helping Jewish inmates to have High Holidays services, Friedman said, "what
we do is ensure the inmates are provided opportunities for redemption. From
that point on, it's between them and God. That's the beautiful thing about being
a Jew. It's a local call."
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.
Return to top