Purim Break for Jewish Inmates

Purim Break for Jewish Inmates

Photo Credit: Johanna Ginsberg/NJJN

Rabbinical student Shemaryahu Gurary, 22, helps Charlie Smith, an inmate at Northern State Prison in Newark, put on tefillin. (July, 2008)

by Dvora Lakein - New York

March 11, 2009

(lubavitch.com) Along with the three-cornered hamantashen and heaps of candies, Purim gives children one raucous day during which they can express their alter egos in masquerade. But for Jewish inmates, their identical jumpsuits fail to disguise feelings of depression and entrapment. Prison protocol dictates that this joyous holiday must be observed like any other day.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, raised awareness of the needs of Jewish prisoners and encouraged outreach in their behalf. While there are many mitzvoth they cannot perform, he said, the mitzvoth of Purim are feasible, and should be made accessible. The four commandments of the day—the megillah reading, charity giving, a gift of food to a friend, and partaking in a festive meal. 

This Purim, Spark of Light, a division of the well-known Aleph Institute, helped prisoners perform all four. They sent mishloach manot to 3,000 Jewish inmates. Roughly 300 yeshiva students and Rabbis visited prisons across the country, with megillahs, snacks, and infectious spirit in tow.

Spark of Light, which reaches out to prisoners year-round, is the only national program ensuring that imprisoned Jews stay connected to their families and Jewish heritage. The organization advocates for their religious rights, provides them with study materials and classes, and ultimately helps them reenter into society. But it is their holiday programs, perhaps, that mean the most to inmates.

“Can I just say one word,” exclaims Daleffio Dalaciou, “Wow.” Dalaciou spent eight months in Miami’s MetroWest prison last year. “It was such a relief to find someone who gave us a little time and cared about us.”  Rabbi Menachem Katz, who directs prison and military outreach for Aleph, visited Dalaciou each week. “When he [Katz] came in and helped me, it turned everything around.

“As soon as I was arrested, I requested Jewish services. They told me that they could not register me; I would have to wait for a rabbi to come find me. It took three months.” During that time, Dalaciou subsisted on bread and juice and whatever he could trade other inmates for with his non-kosher food. “I lost 45 pounds. As the only Jewish inmate in my unit, the officers always acted like it was such a bother to help me. They look down on you for being Jewish, and treat you poorly.”   

Katz arranged for Dalaciou to get on the kosher meal plan. He visited weekly to check up on him and helped him put on Tefillin on Friday mornings. Though he was not incarcerated over Purim, Dalaciou says that Passover was “smooth and impressive. It was so nice getting together with everyone for the seder. Katz also arranged for me to have kosher for Passover food, which is good because I wouldn’t have eaten the bread and I was doing heavy labor at the time. I was really worried that I should have appropriate foods to sustain me, otherwise I would have been in real trouble.”

Zalman Brackman is a rabbinical student in Morristown, New Jersey. He has visited several prisons in the past, and this Purim found him at a Colorado jail. Aside from the three megillah readings he conducted, he distributed mishloach manot and spent time individually with the prisoners.

“Every Jew, no matter his circumstances, has the right and need to connect with G-d,” explains Brackman. “When we enter a jail, we bring a piece of the real world to someone who has no connection with anything beyond his cell.”

Though Brackman says he has a “sad feeling” when the gates are locked upon his exit, he is looking forward to spending the holiday behind bars. “It is a chance to bring to other what I have been learning until now,” he says. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

The Lubavitch Youth Organization, based in Brooklyn, likewise cares for the needs of Jewish inmates, particularly around the holidays. Program director Rabbi Kasriel Kastel sent teams of rabbis to 40 New York State prisons to read the megillah, put tefillin on with the prisoners, and throw holiday parties for the inmates.

 “They are Jews and that is why we go. We have the merit to help people who otherwise would not be able to perform these mitzvoth.”

“‘Love your fellow as yourself,’ is Chabad’s motto and the most important law in the Torah,” explains Katz. The Florida rabbi tries to ease the Jewish prisoners’ plight in a setting where he says, “everything is about red tape. When you think you have overcome one hurdle, there is more red tape blocking you somewhere else.”

In New York, Kastel has had to fight to allow prisoners to perform one of the day’s commandments: giving charity. According to prison protocol, coins are considered contraband. To solve the problem, Kastel arranged with many prison wardens that to bring pennies in for the prisoners and later leave with the full charity boxes. 

Today, after spending “the longest eight months of my life” in jail, Dalaciou is using his experience to help other inmates. Soon after he was released, he began volunteering for Aleph and was hired by them several weeks ago. Dalaciou serves as their webmaster and reads and forwards the thousands of letters sent to Aleph.

“When I read each letter, I put myself into their shoes,” he says. “I went through the same thing.” Some of the more frequent letters include requests for intervention with unhelpful chaplains, prison officials, or violent cellmates. “And of course there are so many thank you letters.”

The prisoners may not have paraded in costume this Purim, but neither were they forgotten.

“I am so grateful for the path that Rabbi Katz put me on,” says Dalaciou from his new desk at Aleph. “It is the path that I am staying on.”

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