NEW YORK, July 30 (JTA) — 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 is things like gang leaders, people organizing leadership in that manner, he added.
But each prison differs in how they allow for religious life.
Greaterford Prison in Pennsylvania allow prisoners to not work on the High Holidays. It also boasts two Torahs and two shofars.
Greaterford, 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 Rav Soloff, who serves prisoners at Greaterford.
“We welcome those who are members of our congregation,” he said, adding that “there’s always somebody who’s a ‘maybe.’ “
When one inmate claimed Jewish roots, Soloff 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, halachically 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.”