Jewish Prisoner Outreach

Last Yom Kippur, students from Maryland Hillel visited prisoners at six jails.
Last Yom Kippur, students from Maryland Hillel visited prisoners at six jails.

Incarcerated Jews have to spend Yom Kippur behind bars. With small Jewish prison populations, limited resources and accommodations, the holiday is a scaled-down version of what it is on the outside.

But with the help of Maryland Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park, 27 college students visited six prisons this year. They taught the prisoners about the holiday, led services and listened to the inmates talk about why they’re in prison.

“Our first year, we had intended to do more of a traditional Yom Kippur prayer service, but we quickly decided that wasn’t the best idea because these people had limited knowledge, and to them it wasn’t interesting,” said Noah Stein, a senior who participated last year and was one of two students who organized and expanded the effort this year. “ … It’s a lot more important to have good conversations with them rather than force them to do a 10-hour davening.”

The groups rented RVs and stayed near the prisons, which were in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. They spent time with the prisoners Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening.

“We, as a community and individuals, believe in the power of one and the power of being selfless,” said Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel. He helped the students with training, got them talitot, Torahs and food from Hillel. He thought the effort delighted prisoners and gave them a small piece of the greater Jewish community.

“This is definitely not your synagogue or my synagogue in any shape or form,” he said.

The Hillel effort is just one of many ways to Jewish community tries to help out the incarcerated members of the community. The Jewish Big Brother Big Sister League, Jewish Prisoner Services, Jewish Community Services and the Aleph Institute are among the organizations that work to keep those on the inside connected to life on the outside through advocacy, visits, programming, books and other resources.

“Judaism is not a solo religion, it’s a communal religion,” said Barbara Roswell, who teaches with the Goucher Prison Education Partnership. The partnership allows prisoners to take classes and earn college credits, and it also brings college students to correctional facilities for some classes, to learn alongside inmates.

“I think that the quality of religious life for any group is [largely shaped by] the folks who come in and as big as that community,” she said.

Jewish Prisoner Services, a program Jewish Community Services has run since 1916, has 14 volunteers who go once a month to eight different correctional institutions, including a psychiatric hospital, to visit Jewish inmates. Most of the volunteers are retired men, some of whom have been volunteering for 30 years.

“They might be talking about holidays, they might be talking about Israel, they might be discussing d’var Torah that week, they might be answering questions the inmates have,” said Beth Hecht, senior manager of volunteer services at JCS. “ … Over the years, we’ve taught basic Hebrew if the inmates are interested in that.”

While these efforts help members of the Jewish community behind bars, Roswell thinks the community could be doing much more to help.

“Religion fills a role that nothing else in prison can fill,” she said.

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