Jews in Prison Stick With Faith To Cope With Flood of Anti-Semitism

Kosher Food a Luxury for Minority of 1% — Threats Are Many

Message of Hope: Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, left, and Rabbi Ken Milhander holds prayer service with inmates.
Courtesy of Moshe Halfon
Message of Hope: Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, left, and Rabbi Ken Milhander holds prayer service with inmates.

By Doni Bloomfield

Published November 05, 2013.

(page 3 of 5)

Jewish prisoners learn to deal with this disparity strategically. Steven Strauss had a policy: if a member of a skinhead gang verbally attacked him for his Judaism, he would immediately challenge that member to a fight. By and large this prevented white supremacist groups from harassing him.

“If you have a beehive, you take the bees one at a time and the rest won’t want to take you,” he explained. “If he doesn’t come down to [fight], and [thereby] loses face, his group will get him.” Strauss’ readiness to fight dramatically raised the costs of anti-Semitism. Even for skinheads, saving face is more important than bigotry.

Perhaps the most noticeably different thing about Jewish prisoners is their access to kosher food, which is almost universally considered superior to regular prison fare. Kosher food sometimes contains meat and cheese (though not together), two items that cash-starved prisons often can’t afford for the rest of the population. But these benefits to keeping kosher come at a price; in prison, as on the street, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

“You wouldn’t believe the politics around the kosher food on the yard,” said J.D. Rollins, a since-freed Muslim prisoner who befriended numerous Jews while behind bars in California. Inmates and staff both resented the special treatment they thought the diet represented. Kosher food would often be tampered with or stolen by inmates in the kitchens, both to punish those on the diet and to barter the valuable goods.

According to Friedman’s estimate, kosher food is so desirable that five-sixths of prisoners on the diet are non-Jews. They can do this by exploiting the vagueness of the law, which grants the right to a religious diet to those with a loosely-defined “sincerely held” religious belief. Though this leaves many chaplains fuming, some Jewish inmates take a more ironic view of the situation.

“You have skinheads and neo-Nazis running around on a kosher diet,” said Strauss. “I wore a yarmulke and said [to anti-Semites on the kosher diet],‘thank you for supporting the Jewish community, we appreciate the business.’”

There’s little irony in prison officials’ response to Jewish observance, however. In some states Jewish prisoners face as much or more anti-Semitism from staff as from fellow inmates. Former prisoners from Illinois said that their fellow inmates were usually not overtly bigoted. But the staff was a different story.

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