For sins against God and Man, Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — atones, and that’s especially true when the transgressors sit in prison cells.
There are some 2,000 Jews doing time in state and federal prisons across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, according to Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of Aleph Institute, North East Region, the support group for Jewish inmates and their families.
For those incarcerated men and women, observing the holiest day on the Jewish calendar isn’t simply a matter of fasting, fetching one’s prayer book and tallit bag, then heading off to services.
“[Their] numbers are miniscule in every institution,” Vogel said. “We’re talking 10, 15, 20 out of a population of 3,000. Therefore, they’re small in numbers, and it’s a tremendous sacrifice for a Jewish inmate to come out and identify himself as a Jew and stand together with the rest of the community and pray.”
But pray they do.
“Over 90 percent [of Jewish inmates] will come to services in one form or another wherever it’s permissible,” he said. “Of course, those in total isolation will be observing it in their cells, but Yom Kippur is recognized throughout the system. And in prison there is a tendency to be a little more religious just because the pace of life is a lot slower, so there’s a little more time to reflect.”
Some institutions have enough Jews for regular services, particularly Yizkor, Vogel said. Others may have just a handful. Where possible, chapel time is allotted for them.
And while most rabbis who regularly visit inmates will be busy elsewhere that day, the prisoners will make do.
“They take a prayer book and they do the best they can, given guidance by the rabbis that have visited them on how to pray,” Vogel said. “They will be fasting. The inmates are given bag lunches before the fast and then bag lunches after the fast later on Yom Kippur night so they can break the fast.”
Fasting alone is “a tremendous sacrifice” in prison, the rabbi noted. “It shows their commitment to it [the holy day], to the laws.
“The dedication of those in prison is phenomenal,” he continued. “It’s inspiring to me to see how, with no resources, how they will go the extra mile and make sure they will fast and do as much prayer as they can.”
And they do this in an environment that for Jews, is increasingly isolated.
“Any weakness in prison is not a healthy sign, or anything which seems weak. Is it dangerous? I’ve never heard of any retaliation or any fights because the gang was fasting, but [but] being a Jew, being different, with a small population in prison of the Jewish community is in itself a tremendous self-sacrifice.”
The sacrifice is magnified by the growth of the gang problem in prisons.
“We just received word less than a month ago from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that we’re no longer allowed to send in any more white yarmulkes,” Vogel said. “They’re only allowed to have black yarmulkes, and the reason for that is because of the colors and the gang-related issues that go on in prison; everything has got to be one certain color.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)