Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons


Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

by Rena Greenberg - Miami, Florida

February 7, 2016

Anti-Semitism and Advocacy

One of the unique challenges Jewish prisoners face in prison is anti-Semitism from other prisoners as well as from prison guards. Declaring one’s Judaism by requesting kosher food or attending religious services can leave prisoners open to verbal attacks or worse. Many correctional facilities in the state have white supremacy activity, and Rabbis Lew, Friedman and Katz have all personally interacted with many neo-Nazis. Katz says that verbal harassment can easily lead to physical violence.

“In prison we find anti-Semitism at levels 100% more than what you would find on the street,” says Katz. To combat it, Aleph will “go all the way up to the highest levels to make sure that the perpetrators—be they guards or other inmates, don’t get away with it.”

Working with lawyers and government officials, Chabad activists advocate for prisoners regarding unfair treatment, anti-Semitism, lack of medical care, denial of religious freedoms and other issues. Federal lawsuits have been filed over the unavailability of kosher prison meals in various states, and Aleph has had to fight prison after prison to allow Jewish ritual objects in.

Katz tells of one state that changed its status quo in the early 2000s prohibiting inmates from keeping tefillin as part of their personal property because the tefillin straps could be used as a weapon. The new rule would only permit tefillin in the prison chapel. But with the chapel often closed, many Jews could no longer fulfill their daily obligation.

The situation prompted Katz to draw up a list of all the potential weapons that could be purchased in the prison canteen including lighters, shoelaces, heavy metal locks, soda cans, razor blades and more. He drafted an email to a high-ranking prison director describing the double standard that prohibits tefillin but allows other potential weapons, and demanded that the ban be rescinded. The prison official complied.

Today, when running into similar issues, Katz says they resort to precedent to leverage other prisons to allow for Jewish rituals to be performed in their entirety, but they are not always successful. Many prisons still do not allow Jewish women to kindle Shabbat candles on Friday night and holidays, and traditional menorahs are frequently banned as a fire hazard.

Family Support

Aleph also works with families of Jewish inmates to identify the services they need. Different families require services as diverse as support groups, spiritual counseling and financial assistance. “Some families are left homeless when the breadwinner is incarcerated. Others are just relieved if they can pick up the phone to speak with someone who empathizes,” he says. “There is no blueprint.”

“For every prisoner, there is also possibly a mother, father, spouse, sister, brother or child” suffering from the stigma and devastation of having a family member locked up. “It’s important for families to know they’re part of the Jewish community, that we don’t judge them and that they’re not alone.”

The organization raises funds to assist families with basic needs and provides 100 children of inmates with a Jewish overnight camp experience every summer. Marcia’s children, Abigail and Mike attended Aleph’s summer camp during the summers that their mom was in prison. As well, volunteers would visit their home, stocking the refrigerator with groceries and taking them shopping for school clothes. They were welcomed to community events and received personalized gifts on Chanukah.

Mike connected with his Jewish identity and soon switched to a Jewish day school with full scholarship. When he was 12 years old, he began studying for his bar mitzvah, fascinated, said Marcia, with his newfound knowledge and traditions.

To Marcia, most meaningful of all was the opportunity to bond with her children while in prison, that transformed her life. “Rabbi Katz took care of everything to make sure I had constant contact with my kids. People drove them to see me every week, they gave them cell phones to call me,” she says. “They kept my family together” during the toughest times, preparing the way for the family to become whole again after Marcia got out.

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