Soon after I became Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I received a call from a Chaplain at a private prison in Mississippi. Prior to this call, there had been no recent Jewish prisoners at the facility. They had experienced no need for a rabbi … until now.
I learned from the Chaplain that the prison had just received a new transfer from Arizona. The inmate had conflicting statements in his records. Some indicated he was Jewish. Some indicated he was Protestant. In addition, I learned that the inmate was threatening to hurt others and take his own life if he did not receive kosher meals. The Chaplain expressed this was an emergency situation and asked if I could come immediately.
As I drove to the correctional facility, my mind was racing. I had two primary tasks ahead: determine if the inmate was a threat to himself or others, and determine if he was or was not Jewish. For me, it was the latter that gave me great pause. I was about to sit in judgment upon another individual. I was going to be involved in something that is so personal and thus subjective, making a recommendation that would forever impact someone’s life.
Upon arrival at the prison, which stood on the side of Highway 49 like a large gated rest-stop, I was met by the Chaplain. He began to walk me around the head offices of the prison, introducing me to the Wardens. Additionally, I also had the privilege to meet many of the block captains, security officials, and office managers. Everyone was extremely warm and welcoming, expressing their thanks for my immediate response to their situation.
When the inmate, “R.S.”, was brought into the room, he was extremely agitated (had to be restrained). His frustration was understandable. Having just been transferred from a prison in Arizona, he was in a period of prison in-processing, where – for a week or two – he was allowed no access to his personal items, and given little information. Additionally, he is trying to get used to new guards, a new “cellie” (roommate), a new prison system, he’s on a hunger strike, and now here I am, trying to determine his faith. Any one of us would be equally as stressed.
Although I tried to express my understanding, he would have none of it. It’s not that he didn’t believe me. It’s that he didn’t even want to hear my voice, the chaplain’s voice, or any other voice besides his own. And so for a good hour, R.S. vented. This was okay with me. I just listened. And, this passive engagement with R.S. seemed to start working. Slowly he calmed down, lowering his tone, beginning to share a few details with me of who he was and what he felt was going on. The guards exited, leaving R.S., the Chaplain, and myself to finally engage in a productive conversation.
I told R.S. that it was a pleasure for me to meet with him, and, that my purpose in being here is first to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others, as well as to determine the issue over religious affiliation. While I wanted to get to the more serious life/death issue, R.S. wanted to engage in the religious issue. In the discussion that followed, I learned that R.S. was part of the Kosher Religious Diet Program in his old prison, and was studying with that prison’s Jewish Chaplain. Thus, per the rules and regulations of the prison, which I had handy during the meeting, R.S. was entitled to have that diet continued in the new facility (unless he sells or trades that food to others).
I also learned that R.S.’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. His mother was not observant – which mattered little in formulating his Jewish identity anyway, for he was raised by his maternal grandfather and his step-grandmother, in a Protestant home. But, R.S. informed me, his estranged mother did force him to have a Bar Mitzvah. He called it “one of the worst days in his life,” as many of the family problems erupted during the service. Shortly thereafter, R.S. started getting into trouble, eventually leading to conflicts with the law.
R.S. has been in prison since 2004 for armed robbery. Upon entering into this prison sentence, he began somehow to re-connect with his Jewish roots, studying with the former prison’s Jewish chaplain. He started observing rituals of Jewish prayer, diet, Shabbat, and more. So, in my professional opinion, R.S. is Jewish, at least in an early stage. Not merely because of his mother’s or maternal grandmother’s religious identity; rather, R.S. is Jewish – in my opinion – because he further identifies himself as such and actively engages in Jewish deeds.
With that sentiment expressed to the Chaplain as well as to R.S., he relaxed completely, allowing me to address the other reason for my visit: the prison’s concern that he is a danger to himself and others. R.S. emphatically said, “There had to be some mistake. While I am upset and may act out at times, it is not my intention to hurt anyone else, or myself.”
I then used my remaining moments with R.S. to review with him the sins that Judaism views as particularly dire: idolatry, inappropriate sexual relations, and murder. As keeping kosher is not one of these, I recommended that while waiting on kosher meals to arrive, he eat at least eat some of the vegetables, bread, and other such staples on the regular meal plate so as not to jeopardize his health. I expressed that doing this would also ensure that he would uphold another Jewish value, p’kuach nefesh. He smiled, for the first time that day, and said he would do so.
We ended with the Priestly Benediction and a hand shake, as R.S. was lead out of the meeting room to go back to his cell. Before I departed, the Chaplain and I spoke. He asked if I would be interested in coming up to the prison more regularly to help guide the Jewish program. Without reservation, I said I would be delighted. These are after all fellow Jews and no matter where they may reside, they have the right to be supported in their Jewish faith.
Judaism is not a luxury; Judaism is a necessity. Even when imprisoned, a Jewish person remains Jewish. A person of faith needs their faith while preparing to return to society. And nobody knows that more than these inmates and the spirited Chaplains who serve them.
As a circuit riding rabbi serving an entire region, Rabbi Klaven is a resource for wide swath of Southern Jews, including those behind bars. His “Passover Pilgrimage” program includes conducting seders at a correctional facility. The work of Beth Tikvah Jewish Prisoner Outreach provides a model, as well. Do you often think of Jews in jail? Does your community do any outreach to imprisoned Jews?