Judaism Behind Bars

Elsa Newman (with her late mother) was convicted in 2002. She is serving 20 years.
Elsa Newman (with her late mother) was convicted in 2002. She is serving 20 years.

Elsa Newman was an extremely dedicated Jew before her incarceration. She kept kosher, considered herself knowledgeable about rituals and holidays and made sure her two sons received a Jewish education at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda. She once worked on a kibbutz in Israel and spent many summers at Camp Ramah, a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos.

“There are so many ways that Judaism is a positive influence for me,” Newman said. “It’s a positive, amazing religion.”

But Newman, 61, who grew up keeping kosher and celebrating Shabbat every week, can’t go to synagogue, has trouble observing the High Holidays and is no longer keeping kosher. She is serving a 20-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW) in Jessup for conspiracy to murder her former husband and related charges. Newman maintains she is innocent and has a group of people who are advocating on her behalf. Among them are two rabbis, including Rabbi William Rudolph of Congregation Beth El.

“Since she’s been in jail, she’s had quite a struggle, because I think she’s tried to carve out something like Jewish observance in a not-the-most-friendly situation,” Rabbi Rudolph said. “She has to do what she can as an individual, and it’s hard to be a Jew on your own.”

But while Newman may be on her own at MCIW, she is not alone in her struggle to maintain a Jewish identity while incarcerated. Jews in prison have to make the most out of limited resources, which often means not being able to fully honor holiday traditions or worship on Shabbat and often dealing with non-Jews sabotaging kosher programs.

“It’s a very impoverished Jewish life,” said Barbara Roswell, a professor who teaches through the Goucher Prison Education Partnership. She met Newman while running book clubs and writing workshops at MCIW.

Jews make up less than 1 percent of America’s prisoner population. According to Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute, there are approximately 4,000 incarcerated Jews in the country and about 40 in Maryland. Most of them are men, and a majority are doing time for white-collar crimes such as mortgage and Medicaid fraud, Rabbi Katz said.

The Aleph Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for religious needs in institutional environments and works on solutions to criminal justice issues, bases these numbers on inmates born of Jewish mothers.

Aleph’s numbers are starkly different from the State of Maryland’s data, which shows 361 inmates who self-identify as Jewish, according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The state allows inmates to declare their faith and does not ask if inmates are born of Jewish parents, Vernarelli said via email.

The discrepancy in numbers is where things get complicated. Advocates say that inmates looking for leverage or special treatment will declare they are a member of a particular faith to enjoy the accommodations made for that religious group. And once accommodations are made, inmates may nitpick over frivolous details, which sometimes results in programs being watered down or ruined for bona fide members of that religion.

“When people are incarcerated, the big things are taken away and so the little things become the big things,” said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International. “And prisons are about pettiness and control through small things. What happens is you have inmates who are being required to be uniform in conduct, in appearance and everything and trying to assert some kind of individuality and control over whatever aspects of their life they can.”

The Kosher Problem
The most widespread effect of this, Friedman said, is on kosher diets. He estimates that 20,000 inmates nationally are falsely enrolled in kosher food programs, and this is costing the prison system $40 million annually. Having written an article and spoken at conferences on the subject, Friedman thinks his estimates may be conservative due to the enormous feedback he’s received.

The State of Maryland started to provide kosher meals for its inmates at the beginning of Passover in 2009. Star-K supervised, counseled and trained the Department of Corrections for the program, and Chaplain Harold Axelrod, a rabbi who retired this fall, reviewed kitchens regularly, Vernarelli said. Commissary vendors sell kosher items, and they try to hire Jewish inmates to prepare the kosher food and train workers based on guidelines from Star-K, he said.

Newman, who kept kosher before she was incarcerated, said she loved the kosher program when it started.

“It was like having a little of your own home be here,” she said. “I think I actually wept.”

But as inmates learned that kosher meals were given at separate times and contained fresh vegetables, more non-Jews changed their faith and signed up for the kosher diet, Newman said. She claims that as more people signed on, the menu changed for the worse, and participants would complain about things that had nothing to do with the laws of kashrut. Some inmates, Newman said, took advantage of being in a situation that was less supervised than the usual prison activities. She hasn’t eaten the kosher diet regularly in two years.

“The food, I’m not sure it was always kosher, and the problems outweighed the meaning of it,” Newman said.

Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, director of advocacy at the Aleph Institute and an advocate of Newman’s, said the Federal Bureau of Prisons took vegetables off the menu in some prisons to cut down on non-Jewish inmates joining kosher diet programs.

What Newman observed hardly surprised Friedman, who said he’s even heard about white supremacist groups hijacking Jewish programs so they could meet throughout the day. In some cases, inmates barter with food from the special diets.

Katz said the Aleph Institute is working with the Maryland Department of Corrections to improve its kosher program, which, he said, may be subject to cross-contamination when non-Jewish inmates prepare the food.

“Although the menu may call for everything to be kosher and the ingredients may be kosher, there’s really no telling what’s going on back there,” he said.

Friedman said it was once up to religious authorities to determine an inmate’s religious status, but these days, most institutions allow inmates to declare their own religion.

The State of Maryland allows for self-declaration of religion but may verify an inmate’s faith when there is a request to participate in the religious diet program, Vernarelli said.

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