Prison Yiddishkeit

After drifting away from Judaism as an adult, a Jewish inmate finds strength, solace and community by reconnecting with his faith.

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The Jews in our prisons are often a forgotten population, part of our collective denial about Jews who do not fit our image of the community. But there are Jews in all levels of the prison system, many of them creating study groups and Friday night prayer groups with limited rabbinic support. One of our rabbis asked a congregant in the federal prison system to write an account of his experience building community and creating his own Jewish life. The inmate asked that his name not be used.

I sit on a grey, plastic chair in my 7-by-12 foot prison cell. Ron, my celly, breathes heavily on the bottom bunk. I scoot up to the small desk to get my notebook and pen and glance at the wall above my grey-metal floor locker. Per Bureau of Prison policy, it’s the only space where I can display my family photos, a monthly calendar, and a few inspirational quotes. One picture catches my eye: it’s of my brother wearing a maroon-knitted kippah, standing at the Shabbat dinner table; challah, wine glasses and candlesticks adorn the white tablecloth. Around it, all smiles and nicely dressed, sit his two daughters, wife, and our parents. I’m not in the picture, of course; I’m in prison. I’m taken back in my mind to a time when I was there, when I was an integral part of my family’s Jewish life.

I was immersed in Jewish culture from the moment I was born; I even went to a Jewish day school until the 8th grade. As I became an adult and lived on my own, I drifted from the values and traditions I was so close to as a child. Secularity became my norm. My gaze moves to the bible that sits on top of my locker. Its black cover and compact size made it easy for me to inconspicuously carry when I was transported by armored van back and forth to court and the Boston county jail. That fateful morning of my arrest – the 6:00 AM banging on the door, the fear, the tears – was three long years ago.

After my arrest, I was quick to turn to God and Judaism to cope and make sense of my situation. In the jail where I was held during my pre-trial phase, there was no Jewish community. But because I had been largely detached from any Jewish community I didn’t miss it. Ironically, for the first time in my life – and this is a theme that continues through my whole prison experience – I bonded with men of other faiths in spiritually meaningful ways. The small group of men in Block E welcomed me with open arms to their daily bible studies, and they included me in the humbling experience of their prayer circles. (I dealt with mentions of Jesus and the Trinity with cordial smiles; after all, I was accepted wholeheartedly for who I was as a Jew. The least I could do, as my mother would say, was to “take the best and leave the rest.”)

My day school foundation made it easy to rest my precarious head on Judaism’s reassuring shoulder. For the ?rst time, I was motivated and had the time to delve into the significance of God and what it meant to be a Jewish man.

Any doubts and fears that lingered were addressed by people in the Jewish community – a community of which I didn’t even know I was a part. The rabbi of my family’s Conservative synagogue has come to visit me, inspire me, and empower me. In fact, this article is thanks to him. A volunteer rabbi also came to visit and brought me much comfort. Family and friends extended their love and spiritual guidance. My belief and respect for Judaism was strengthened by this outpouring of kindness.

I began to read the Torah along with other Jewish texts, and did what I could to celebrate holidays (like the paper menorah I made for Hanukkah with orange paper flames; real flames are not allowed). And I prayed. I prayed from the heart for the ?rst time in my life. I found strength and wisdom in these pursuits, not only to deal with my difficult circumstances and the personal issues that brought me to prison, but also to begin a life-long journey of repentance and self-improvement. More importantly, I developed an under-standing and relationship with God. But as for a Jewish community in prison, there was none… and for the ?rst time in my life I found myself missing it.

Under the picture of my family’s Shabbat is another photograph of me and a 70-year-old named Al, in our prison khakis on a sunny afternoon. I was introduced to Al during lunch in our crowded chow-hall by a mutual acquaintance: “Hey, Al. Here’s the Jew I was telling you about!”

During the 13 months after my arrest, I never met another Jew. After I was sentenced and transferred to a prison of 1,600 inmates, scared and bewildered, I questioned whether I would ever ?nd a community of Jews. Inmates with swastika tattoos on their shaved heads roamed around every corner; anti-Semitic jokes were casual talk in the dining hall; and exclusively Christian literature was strewn on counter tops and tables. However, the faith and pride I had in being Jewish provided me with the courage to not hide my faith, and soon after my arrival I was introduced to the prison’s small Jewish community.

Al invited me to the regular Friday night service in the prison chapel. I couldn’t remember when I had ever chosen to attend a Friday night service. Around two tables sat 12 men of all ages and sizes. Introductions were made, a kippah and siddur were placed in my hands, and prayers began. Hebrew words ?lled the sterile room; familiar tunes, like the Shema and Aleinu, danced in my heart. I was filled with an overwhelming feeling – a feeling that felt like home. To this day, I still choose to go every week. But I found myself wondering why I had never felt this way before while standing in the large sanctuary back home. It is true: you don’t realize what you have until it is taken from you.

Have I found a Jewish community at this prison? There is a group of men who share a common heritage. But it’s more complicated than that.

First, I would be hard pressed to ?nd two of us who share a common back-ground or level of observance. Three of us are Orthodox/Chabad, one grew up Jewish while two found Judaism in prison. There is a man who grew up surrounded by Orthodoxy yet he practices as a Reform Jew, and I am Conservative. There is a Noahide, a Messianic, and others who have a purely academic interest in Judaism. Temporary visitors come and go as they survey the best faith for them. There are other Jews at the prison who choose never to show their faces.

Moreover, like any synagogue, our small community has its struggles, arguments, and even fights. With so many backgrounds and view points, our group sometimes fractures. Chaplains have been yelled at, new members verbally harassed, and at times, almost no one feels welcome.

Fortunately, things are changing, and we have evolved in my two years here into a more understanding and supportive group.

As I do every Wednesday afternoon, I make my way to the prison library to meet Al and two others. We gather each week to discuss various topics: plans for the upcoming holidays, suggestions for new books to order, where we should send our next charity donation, resolutions to con?icts between community members or with the chaplains. Today, we are discussing ways to organize our newly created choir. Pesach is coming soon, and we want our renditions of Dayenu and Chad Gadya to have some semblance of real singing.

Wednesday “business meetings,” as we call them, are new. One positive outcome from this process is that others see the Jewish community as a united front. We are no longer in?ltrated by imposters who are interested in getting free grape juice or taking advantage of other inmates who don’t know any better. Because we have learned to communicate better amongst ourselves, the chaplains respect and listen to us more readily. All voices are heard, and all matters are addressed as a group. Through this process of gathering together and being open-minded, we have become one. Never before would we have delivered to each other Mishloach Manot and celebrated a rousing rendition of Megillat Esther as we did this Purim without this unity. Nor would we have had the in?uence and networking ability to ask Jews who normally do not participate to help create a minyan for to say kaddish.

Fortunately, all Jewish prisoners have advocacy as well as spiritual and academic guidance from outside sources. For the past two years, the Aleph Institute has sent me a calendar with Jewish artwork and holiday reminders; their monthly magazine, “The Liberator,”comes in the mail full of insightful articles, parashah commentaries, holiday information, Judaic course offerings, legal advisories, and more. Several times a year rabbinical students or a local rabbi come to visit and talk and pray with us, all arranged with Aleph’s leadership. Reaching Out, another Jewish-prisoner support organization, sends similar monthly newsletters They also provide ardent advocacy for issues we experience with prison administration. And, L’Asurim, an affiliate of Aleph, mails free Judaic literature and, for each major holiday, a dozen blank cards I can send to family and friends. These organizations are run by rabbis I know, rabbis I can call and e-mail for support and advice any time I want. I am grateful for these organizations that make it their mission to support and guide Jews across the country to a more spiritual and comfortable life despite being in prison.

Equally important, these groups support the health and vitality of our expanded Jewish community. They ensure we have what we need: siddurs, menorahs for Hanukkah, and kosher food for Passover, for example. Their efforts and energy are boundless.

While this support and extended community is a blessing and greatly appreciated, a question comes to mind: what kind of assistance will Jews like myself have afforded to them upon their release from the prison walls and into the “real world?” I know Christian friends who are looking forward to comfort and guidance at their church’s half-way house; I see bulletins posted in the prison chapel of ministries extending housing, food, and clothing to their newly released brethren. If this hospitality exists for Jews, I am unaware. I want so badly to continue my Jewish ways when I get out of prison, and I have no doubt that I will. My uncertainty comes from whether I will be at it alone, as was the case when I ?rst entered the prison system. My family will always be there, but will I be accepted as an ex-convict at the local shul or turned away at the synagogue’s front door? Where is the congregation that will open up its arms and help me get on my feet?

To these questions, I have no answers.