An Eye-opening Prison Visit

Friday, 4 May, 2012 - 1:13 pm

I have been a chaplain - visiting Jewish inmates in prison for over 10 years. This week I had an experience that was unlike any before it. I recently volunteered to become a chaplain in a Louisiana prison for women. This was in response to a request from the Aleph Institute, a Chabad run national Jewish prisoner’s advocacy organization. They were in touch with a woman who is doing time in Louisiana. She had originally written Jewish Family Service last summer and Deena Gerber relayed her information to me. At the time Aleph had Yeshiva students traveling through the region visiting Jewish inmates. They immediately arranged for her to be visited. After some of our mail to her was returned in the fall, we assumed that she had been released. In fact she had been transferred to a facility in Southeast Louisiana. After working through the layers of red tape I was finally approved to become a volunteer chaplain at her new location.

Most of my chaplaincy experience has been in the Federal system. I have also been to a few parish prisons. None of that prepared me for what I was about to encounter. Here was a Jewish young woman who is completely isolated. She is the only Jew in the compound. She is regularly accused by other inmates of having murdered Jesus (as if she did it with her own hands). Her religion is constantly challenged and she is told that if she doesn’t join them she is going to hell. Certainly the chapel staff does not express themselves to her in this way. But for many of them she is the first Jew they have met. Kosher food is nearly impossible to obtain and basic Jewish observances come with great struggle. State laws do not protect the inmates’ religious rights like the Federal laws do. The Aleph institute has developed an extensive web of connections with the prison systems around the country, including Louisiana – which has been immensely helpful for her. Still the loneliness is overwhelming and hope is hard to come by. She is dealing with a difficult legal battle, which exacerbates her situation ever more.

I share this with you not just to make you aware of a forgotten Jewish population in the US, but also because there are ways that you can help. If you would like to find out more please let me know. In the meantime, cherish your freedom and pay more attention to your family – you never know when you might be faced with something like this G-d forbid. But do know that a Jew who is incarcerated will be remembered by Aleph and Chabad wherever they are.

Mazel Tov to Rabbi Shmuel and Rivky Kaufmann upon the birth of their daughter, and to the grandparents, Dr. David and Nechama Kaufmann.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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