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Female inmates live in a much less racially divided culture, according to Halfon and a former inmate of CIW. They are therefore able to ignore ethnic tensions to a much greater extent than male prisoners. But religion is still highly divisive.
“There were occasions when Christian volunteers said things that were misunderstood about who’s saved and who isn’t saved,” said Halfon. In that theologically hostile environment, Halfon tries to make Judaism vibrant and safe.
“There are quite a few evangelical churches [with a presence in the prison] which is why we’re so visible,” Halfon said. His work to make the Jewish chaplaincy well known has ranged from constructing a Sukkah and hosting 100-person Seders, to overseeing conversions and Bat Mitzvahs of inmates.
“Our Purim service rocks,” he added.
A former inmate at the prison, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed Halfon. “There was a Christian chaplain who, if you weren’t Christian, she didn’t want anything to do with you,” she said. “[The chaplain] would throw in Jesus when she shouldn’t have.” Facing pressure to convert is not a challenge unique to either gender, however.
According to a recent national survey of prison chaplains conducted by Pew, 44% of prison chaplains are evangelical Christians, and 83% believe that Christians have more religious volunteers than they need.
“Even though they’re not allowed to proselytize they can’t help themselves,” said Friedman. “They’re fulfilling the great commission.” And it’s not just professionals: according to the study, over 70% of chaplains believe that inmates proselytize to each other.
To fight these racial and religious divides and the potentially dangerous mistrust they breed, many Jewish prisoners try to create an expansive community larger than one composed of the Jews who happen to be in their facility. When inmates can move past the initial differences inherent in diverse ethnicities and religions, trust can build and much of the anti-Semitism rampant in prison can be overcome through friendships.
“Alliances form,” said Steven Strauss. His friends “were a hodgepodge: Native [American]s, white guys, even black guys.”
“A Jew, a Muslim, a Christian and a pagan sat down to play dominoes,” said Joseph. “That’s not a joke.”