Teachers Take Their Lessons Behind Bars for Jewish Prisoners

By Ben Ehrlich

Published August 07, 2007, issue of August 10, 2007.
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Rabbinical students Yisroel Silverstein of Brooklyn and Reuven Brody of Miami Beach, Fla., with their black hats and beards, must have looked out of place this summer on “The Farm.” The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., which earned its nickname because it is still a working farm, is the largest and perhaps most infamous prison in the United States, with 5,000 inmates. Known for its swampy swelter and constant flooding, the Farm is hardly an Edenic vacation destination. But for Silverstein, 19, and Brody, 20, it was just another stop on a road trip that spanned 20 prisons from Alabama to Oklahoma.

Silverstein and Brody were sent out by the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Fla., to help complete its most comprehensive Jewish prisoner service: the summer visiting program. One of a number of services that Aleph provides for Jewish prisoners and their families — including a pen-pal program and a newsletter called The National Liberator, as well as financial and emotional support for prisoners’ loved ones — the summer visiting program sends 30 to 50 teams of two young rabbis or rabbinical students to 450 facilities in 45 states over six weeks. Aleph representatives reach every single Jewish inmate, male and female, in federal, state, county and local prisons and jails — from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., which many believe has the greatest population of Jewish inmates, to the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md., which has only one. The visitors lead group classes, offer one-on-one instruction, lead prayers, conduct religious rituals and distribute educational materials.

Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of Aleph, described the prisoner demographic as a “large audience of Jews that don’t get attended to properly and that obviously have time on their hands.” Aleph seeks to give prisoners a meaningful way to spend this time. “There needs to be the right programming and the right attention and the right connection made with them,” Lipskar said, “for educational purposes, for bringing them closer to Judaism, for helping them stay close to their families, and to just help them live fully as Jews in that environment.”

There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Jewish men and women incarcerated in the United States, a minuscule proportion of the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners. But Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Seattle-based Jewish Prisoner Services International —an organization that sends representatives from all branches of Judaism to service America’s 100 or so federal prisons — says that the exact number of Jewish prisoners is “extremely hard to determine.” Many prisoners, for various reasons, may not identify themselves as Jewish. Friedman believes that prisoners, when behind bars, removed from an actively functional Jewish community, can become secularized over time. He also fears that the wrong religious declaration can land many of these prisoners in danger.

The wife of a Jewish inmate in a medium-security federal prison spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity, and confirmed that maltreatment is a reality for Jewish inmates. She said that her husband has been called “kike” and “dirty Jew” and that he feels threatened by gangs. Weekly Aleph Institute visits have helped him and his few Jewish peers maintain their Judaism, offering classes ranging from Holocaust history, to kosher laws, to mysticism. “It takes up his daily life,” she said. “That’s what fills up his time every day.” If nothing more, it offers a distraction from the reality of prison, which, although constantly uncomfortable, can potentially become violent.

Aleph has also helped that inmate’s wife cope, with its brand-new educational meetings for prisoners’ families. She is part of what Aleph’s family programs director, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, calls “family doing time on the outside.” “They’re embarrassed, they’re stressed out, they’re financially stressed,” Boyarsky said.

So, starting last month, Aleph coordinated support groups, with a psychiatrist present, for family members. The support groups, Boyarsky said, “give the family the knowledge that there are other families like them, which makes life easier for them… [and] gives them somebody to talk to.”

The inmate’s wife said she could not have survived without Boyarsky’s help.

The talking cure is used behind bars as well as outside of them. Silverstein and Brody had made advanced plans — like reservations — to get inside prisons and perform this cure. When they arrive, they must check in with security, heightened considerably since September 11, 2001, and be cleared with all the guards and towers. Then, once settled in a visiting room or the chaplain’s office, they meet the inmates and introduce themselves. They say the Sh’ma together and put tefillin on the inmates. “We only have an hour and a half with them,” Silverstein said, “so we do that first.” They start telling stories, knowing that each prisoner has a different level of knowledge, and let discussion go where it may. Silverstein reaffirmed the Aleph credo that just talking in itself can rehabilitate a person considerably: “They can’t speak to anyone, whether it’s their friends or the guards; they don’t have anyone to talk to.” Talking gives them a measure of freedom.

At the Farm, 52% of the prisoners will never be released. But just because they will never re-enter society, does not mean they should not be rehabilitated, organizations for Jewish prisoner education believe. “Many people think, ‘Throw them into prison, and throw away the key,’” said Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer, who leads a Brooklyn-based group called Reaching Out. “That attitude has to change, because no one knows who’s next.”

Reaching Out is a group of volunteers that publishes and distributes a national educational newsletter of the same name, under the direction of Chabad/Lubavitch. The group started 25 years ago with a class at Riker’s Island in New York City. After sentencing, the prisoners at Riker’s moved upstate and wanted the Jewish education they had been receiving to follow them. Although Reaching Out still sends out rabbis to visit, it was born as a way in which Jewish prisoners could be educated despite limited resources. (Spritzer was adamant that he never accepts donations from a prisoner’s family.) The newsletter includes an essay on a religious theme, information about the meaning of an upcoming holiday and letters from prisoners around the country. Spritzer calls his newsletter a “mail-order rabbi,” one that can reach even prisoners in solitary confinement or special segregation, where visitors are often not allowed.

Silverstein and Brody were actually allowed to visit the one Jewish prisoner in solitary confinement at the Farm. The size of the room — about 5 feet by 7 feet, with only a bed, a toilet and a seat — shocked Silverstein. He described having to put tefillin on the man through prison bars. Eventually, as always happens, the three got to talking. “When we spoke to the person, it was very emotional,” Silverstein said. They spoke through the bars about Judaism, and shared stories. “A lot of people tell me, ‘We know we’re going to die here, but our souls are going to live on. We have to do the right thing.’ That’s why they try to come back to their Judaism.”

What struck Silverstein most was how similar Jews in prison are to himself, and to other Jews on the outside. “A Jewish soul,” he said, “no matter if it’s in prison, no matter if it’s in Afghanistan, no matter if it’s on the moon, it’s a Jewish soul.”

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