NEW YORK (JTA) – Charles Smith tries to recall the last time he participated in the tefillin ritual as the rabbinical student wraps his arm.
“It’s been a long time,” Smith says, then recites the corresponding prayer.
The student, Chaim Gurary, and colleague Chaim Kohn ask for the Hebrew names of the gray-haired men in beige suits before Kohn explains the significance of the tefillin.
Chabadniks wrapping tefillin around men’s arms, and reciting and explaining the blessings, isn’t unusual. But it’s less familiar when the setting is prison – in this case Northern State Prison in Newark, N.J. – and the pupils are convicts.
During the year, Chabad rabbinical students visit Jewish prisoners throughout the United States, bringing with them tefillin, prayer books and words of hope. This summer the students visited 3,700 Jewish inmates in more than 360 prisons in 37 states.
The mass visits are arranged by the Aleph Institute, Chabad’s faith-based rehabilitation program that aims to make it easier for Jews to practice their religion in prison – a difficult task where gang warfare and prejudices are rampant.
Gurary, 21, and Kohn, 20 – Chaim 1 and Chaim 2, as they introduce themselves to prisoners – comprised the team traveling to New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. They visited 14 prisons in nine days.
The prisoners’ religious backgrounds and experiences are varied. Gurary and Kahn met a prisoner in the Delaware Correction Center who Gurary said was “very involved in Judaism and puts on tefillin every day.”
One year as the High Holidays came around, the prisoner didn’t know the exact day of Yom Kippur because he had no calendar – so he fasted for 48 hours.
Other prisoners are delighted with Aleph Institute visits but pass on the rituals. Gurary cites the example of an Israeli-born prisoner who was “very happy” the Chaims came but opted not to put on tefillin.
Gurary, a student at the Rabbinical College of Miami, and Kohn, a student at the Central Yeshiva of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, say they are received positively by the inmates.
Kohn preaches to the prisoners that they have a second chance. During his visit to Northern State, a minimum security facility, he cites the message of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, to beware of mind over matter.
“God doesn’t ask of the impossible,” Kohn adds.
Animosity among groups sometimes becomes an impediment for practicing Judaism in prison.
Joseph Zabita, 63, of Elizabeth, N.J., was transferred to Northern State two years ago after 43 years at a prison in Trenton. He contrasts his two experiences.
“I can count seven people that I know are Jewish here,” Zabita says, adding that the Jews are “hidden” because “they are afraid of retaliations by other groups.”
He says at Trenton, a stronger Jewish community made observing Jewish practice less fearful.
Matt Schuman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, says the large numbers of Muslims in the prisons is sometimes threatening for those who identify themselves as Jews.
“A small fraction of the prison population is Jewish,” he says.
Morey Marcus, another Northern State inmate, echoes the concern about the lack of community.
“There’s no rabbi here. We haven’t had one in years. I just had a sister die and there was no rabbi,” he says. “We do not know as much as we should” about Judaism.
The rabbinical students share stories. Last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Gurary stayed outside a prison in a caravan with a Torah scroll.
“For them it was like the Mashiach came,” he says, using the Hebrew term for the messiah.
“Sometimes the guards did not want to let us in because of our tzitzit,” Gurary says. “In Delaware they thought they were dangerous.”
“We land in states where they never saw a Jew before. We’ve been to prisons where they never saw a Jew before, prisons with one Jewish inmate.”
Kohn and Gurary say their mission is to complete the rebbe’s vision of assisting “every single Jew.”
“Anything that helps improve an inmate as a person and gets him through incarceration is a positive,” Schuman says. “If people turn to religion to get through it, they should be commended for it.”