I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.
Often in our work and through this blog, we here at the ISJL try to illuminate the unique characteristics of Southern Jewish Life, while also sharing commonalities among the larger Jewish population. This exhibit at Eastern State worked to do the same thing, explain the unique needs of their Jewish population while successfully creating a space for visitors to make connections to their own lives and practice. It’s an interesting place to consider the importance of communities of faith in different settings, and the diversity of Jewish life and practice. If you are ever in Philadelphia I highly recommend making the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to see this hidden scared space– and wrestle with it yourself.
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?