Although Jewish prisoners make up less than 1 percent of the prison population nationwide, Rabbi Menachem Katz continues to maintain contact with prisoners to help provide what they need, such as religious texts, prayer services, and to make sure that they are treated fairly. But his work is not easy.
Jewish inmates in Arizona, for instance, have refused to meet with Katz, who works with Jewish prisoners all over the country, because of the fear of white nationalist gangs.
“We wanted to come visit them, but they said, ‘No, that will be too dangerous for you,’” said Katz, the Aleph Institute’s director of Military and Prison Outreach in Florida. “In Arizona, there is a concern with white supremacy.”
According to Katz, there are currently 40 Jewish prisoners in the Arizona state prisons and 20 in federal institutions.
A 2016 ADL report listed California and Texas as having the highest concentration of white supremacist gangs, followed by “problem” states of Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri, Oregon and Tennessee. Arizona’s problem is not as big, but still has an impact on prisoners and visitors.
But that has not stopped the Aleph Institute from providing its services.
“With the prisoners, first and foremost, we are there to ensure that they are not forgotten,” Katz said. “A lot of these Jewish inmates are cut off from their friends and family, and they’re left all alone in the world.”
The Aleph Institute is a Chabad-Lubavitch organization dedicated to serving specific Jewish populations that tend to be isolated from the regular community, primarily prison inmates and members of the military.
Jewish Prisoner Services International, which is based in Seattle, also provides services to Jewish incarcerated people, albeit on a smaller scale.
JPSI Secretary and Treasurer Rabbi Matthew Perry said Jewish prisoners have to deal with the fears of white nationalist gangs and violence on prison yards in ways most people who are not incarcerated can’t imagine.
For example, inmates can harm each other by tampering with meals. However, kosher meals come in prepackaged, sealed trays, making this particular issue less of a concern for prisoners who adhere to kosher dietary restrictions.
“In Washington, we have around 15 inmates who are Jewish, but about 200 people are on the kosher diet because it can’t be messed with,” Perry said.
JPSI also helps prisoners adjust to life in close quarters.
“In the prisons, there’s usually overcrowding, which means less space to practice your religion,” Perry said. “You’ll have three or four people in a room that’s designed for one or two.”
Perry said prisons generally have chapels or public religious spaces for prayer.
Attempts to interview Jewish inmates in Arizona were unsuccessful, which did not surprise Katz, who noted that Jewish prisoners try to keep as low a profile as possible.
Recently, rabbinical students Aharon Mishulovin and Raziel Cohen came from California to Tuscon’s Federal Correctional Institution on behalf of the Aleph Institute. There they led a Rosh Hashanah service for Jewish incarcerees. Mishulovin has been visiting prisoners as a part of the Aleph Institute for a few years and his work has taken him across the country and even to Peru.
“We began our discussion on our first night about faith,” Mishulovin said of the Tuscon visit. “A person who has faith is automatically a lot more relaxed, a lot happier, a lot more at ease, because they know that there’s a God. Not everything is in their hands. When you take a person who puts their trust in God, they have the ability to be happier.”
Although there were only around 15 attendees at the Rosh Hashanah service, Mishulovin was grateful to see there were many who wanted to learn more about their Judaism. And both he and Cohen emphasized that denominations do not matter in the work they do.
“Every Jew is a Jew, and that’s the outlook that we have to have,” Mishulovin said.
Like Katz and Perry, the duo has seen firsthand what Jewish inmates endure. But Mishulovin is hopeful that his visits are helping Jewish prisoners practice their faith.
“It’s completely of their own will,” Mishulovin said. “It’s not always convenient, but they do it anyway and that’s inspiring.” JN