Rodger Kamenetz is a poet, essayist, and thinker who is internationally known for his work in Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. He is professor of literature and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Louisiana State University. He is the author of eight books, including "The Jew in the Lotus," "The Missing Jew: New and Selected Poems," and "Stalking Elijah," which won the National Jewish Book Award for 1997 in the category of Jewish Thought. He has written for The New York Times and Moment Magazine.
Appeared on beliefnet.com August 2000 © 2000 RODGER KAMENETZ All rights reserved. This article may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of the author.
Jews in Jail
By: Rodger Kamenetz
Jews in America's prisons--and on death row--face discrimination and abandonment, but a few advocates are working to change that.
I met Jane Davis at a Jewish meditation retreat a few months ago. Before the meditation retreat began, we spoke briefly in the bookstore and she told me about her work--helping Jewish prisoners.
Jane Davis lives in Atlanta. She grew up in Kingston, N.Y., in a Jewish family and received a master's degree in social work. She worked for several years with gang youth and prisoners but left that world for business and marketing. But something drew her back.
In the early 90s, she began writing articles about prisoners, and in December 1993 she was asked to be a media witness at the execution of Chris Berger. She told me, "I was so affected at witnessing a human being literally fried in front of my eyes, heart and soul, that I came out seeking spiritual support as well as deeper answers to the question burning inside me: 'How did we as a society evolve to this moment of human degradation?' I viscerally knew the oneness of our collective soul. Chris was me and I was him. His eyes stayed glued to mine from the moment he was brought into the execution chamber until the leather flap was put over his eyes."
As a direct result of her being a witness, she founded a nonprofit peace organization "based on honesty, faith, and action." She calls it HOPE-HOWSE, an acronym for her philosophy: "Help Other People Evolve through Honest Open Willing Self Evaluation (and expression)."
From a Jewish perspective, she says, "It could be called tikkun olam in action." (Tikkun olam, literally, "repair of the world," is a Kabbalistic term that these days is generally applied to social action work.)
As a child, Jane "found God in the Shema [the liturgical statement of God's oneness] and also in the silent moment of individual prayer when we lit the Shabbos candles," she said. "As a little girl, I loved circling the candles three times, covering my eyes, and having a private moment with the God of my understanding." In more recent years, she's renewed her connection with Judaism through a correspondence with Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen of Chabad-Lubavitch, who recently passed away.
"I was Bat Mitzvahed on May 6, 2000, at the age of 46," she said. "My week's parsha [Torah portion] included 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' the very essence of my work."
While Jane reaches out in her work to prisoners of all faiths and races, she's taken a special interest in the fate of Jewish prisoners. Her eyes opened after writing an article on Jews in jail.
"I found Jews were buried alive," she told an interviewer for the Atlanta Jewish Times. "There was one woman who had been there for 10 years and had never had a visit from a rabbi. I felt like I had stumbled upon this cave and found Jews there. So it was like my Jewish soul came forward. I couldn't just leave them."
Jews in prison in the United States are a small group in absolute or relative numbers. In 1998, there were approximately 1,700 Jewish prisoners out of 1.5 million, according to Congressional testimony--a little more than one in 1,000. But the isolation of Jewish prisoners, the anti-Semitism and insensitivity of prison officials, and the general lack of connection between Jewish prisoners and the Jewish community make their situation extremely difficult.
Currently, Jane says, "There are 10 Jewish prisoners on death row scattered throughout the country like prizes in a Cracker Jack box. Most have been abandoned by the Jewish communities, including rabbis, although there are some rabbis who do visit occasionally."
She says that all those active in working with Jewish prisoners, including such organizations as Aleph Institute and Jewish Prisoners International, echo the same complaint.
Jane has developed a program called Minyan-by-Mail, which began as a result of her feeling the despair of these Jewish prisoners. ("Minyan" is the term for a Jewish prayer quorum.) She considers it "a program to foster community. Being kind to people does not condone any act they may have committed, and it brings dignity to ourselves and others."
In Jane's view, "The Jews in prison and death row--like many Jews in the 'free world'--are often not very observant. However, upon landing in such a strange land, they seek solace and connection through their religion. Ironically, many Jews in prison fight so hard to be Jewish when it would be much easier to not be."
She spoke of Chayim, who sits on San Quentin's death row and who fought years ago to be able to wear his yarmulke. His victory in that case won headlines in the local papers. Max Soffar, a resident of Texas' death row, is another prisoner she's had a close connection with. Convicted in 1981, he has fought to have a rabbi with him should his execution come to be. He was told he would have a minister.
Jane says she's heard again and again from prison chaplains who have an agenda of converting Jewish prisoners: "We know your people want nothing to do with them. We tell them that, too!"
She feels that the lack of attention paid by the Jewish community to prisoners sends a message "that we don't care about our very own and in some ways gives credence to the anti-Semitism that flourishes in the prison system."
Her contention about anti-Semitism is backed by Isaac M. Jaroslawicz, director of legal affairs for the Aleph Institute, a national humanitarian and prisoner's aid organization founded by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar in 1981 with the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Jaroslawicz told a Congressional committee in 1998, "Many Jews in state prisons are afraid to even announce their religion, for fear of the anti-Semitic attitude of wardens, guards, and other inmates. Jewish inmates in Arizona have been knifed and beaten, then placed in isolated segregation 'for their own benefit' while the perpetrators roam free."
Jaroslawicz spoke of Brett Cook, an inmate in Texas who declared himself Jewish. He was transferred from minimum to maximum security prison, "where, apparently, neo-Nazi skinheads were alerted as to his imminent arrival. Within 15 minutes of his being placed on the compound, he was set upon by members of a gang and killed. The crime was never solved, and, shamefully, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice quietly put the case on the shelf."
Jaroslawicz also cited statements by Rabbi Ted Sanders, the official Jewish chaplain for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, that "most of the other line chaplains in the Texas prison system fight everything Jewish, from releasing inmates for services, to denying them and confiscating prayer books, Bibles, tallaisim [prayer shawls], yarmulkes, etc. In many instances, the chaplain or administration will confiscate needed Passover supplies, such as matzah and horseradish that the rabbi provides, and say it's 'contraband.' Missionaries constantly try to convert Jewish inmates with promises of toothpaste and soap. Inmates are hounded if they wear a yarmulke in their cells while praying. Rabbi Sanders states that it seems to him that there is a deliberate attempt to make it impossible for Jewish inmates who want to attend Jewish services from doing so. Non-Jews who inquire about converting to Judaism are subjected to harassment and intimidation, too."
Jaroslawicz added, "Unfortunately, the story is the same at many other state prisons around the country."
In her work through Hope-Howse, Jane Davis has seen much the same. She has written of a young man in prison, born of a Jewish mother and Christian father, who declared himself a Jew. He too was beaten, but this only strengthened his resolve.
"Something inside of him was sparked," Jane wrote. "'If I'm going to be beaten up for being Jewish, I damn well want to learn about what it is!!!!' And so began his walk of learning--learning what it is to be Jewish."
Prisons offer Jews an opportunity to do tremendous tikkun olam work, in her view. "While it may appear to be an issue that does not affect Jews to a large degree, prison is a place where we can have a large impact on society's problems in general. We can help bring children to visit their parents in prison, help teach people how to read and write in prison."
She notes that many of the Pell grants and other educational programs for prisoners have been stopped. "We can also check to see if there are any Jews in local jails and make a point to let the chaplains know that we are aware and that we do care."