Justice, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City.  His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.

5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors.  We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.

1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.

A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated.  And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.

One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin.  While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck.  The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.

For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality.  No glass bottles here.

2. Use your power well, and before someone else tries to.

Prison life is all about protecting and employing your power – whether inmate, civilian, or guard.  In an environment defined by all-encompassing restriction and unmediated hierarchy, everyone is pushing the system for that one extra, badly needed exception.

One of my first interactions with an inmate took the form of an innocent question: “Rabbi, can I sign my name on Rosh Hashana?”  Happy to finally be of rabbinic service and naive to my surroundings, I quickly offered the answer (halakhically: no).  What I had missed was that no inmate could enter services without signing in at a check-point, and that this man had been holding up the entire line in an increasingly confrontational debate with an irate guard. “See, the Rabbi said you can’t make me!” The officer turned to me. I froze, stunned by the reality of my power in a prison conflict.  Simply by entering their conversation I’d terminate the “do as you’re told!” domination the guards enjoyed; she’d have to tone herself down before a prisoner or, worse yet, submit herself to a supervisor. I could make the Jewish prisoner avoid serious sin; I could make him feel like a human with spiritual needs, and not just an annoyance; and in this small but sacred way, one less Jew on Rikers would inscribe his name in the Book of the Coerced.

But would the guard forgive my trespass – and is this the pot for which I ought cash my hand? Who knew what sway this officer held over the length of our service, over whether they’d deign to run the AC in a sweltering chapel, or if kosher lunch for the congregation would go the way of our challot, disappearing somewhere in storage.  I was entirely unprepared to handle this decision . . . and I backed away, pretending (to no one but myself) to be very rabbinic somewhere else.


Later that night, I was rooting through Rikers’ padlocked “Jewish stuff” cabinet, when I discovered a crisp edition of Mishnah Berura – the Orthodox guide to detailed observance of Jewish law.  I wondered if these volumes, when still wet off the press and awaiting fresh wrappings, somehow sensed where they were heading. Is this too a home for us? Lining their pages, thousands of Cans and Cannots, Must Do’s and Don’t Forgets shout oblivious for attention inside their locked-up aluminum cupboard, within a distant cinderblock classroom, to men long ago deafened by another Law, a Law that rushes onward yet leaves them surrounded – like a river around an island.

But its presence is a countertext.  There must be a few remembering souls who discern that other voice, and invoke its holy counsel. Maybe they are pious; maybe nostalgic; maybe it is grasped like a spade – in place of a pen – to win small power.  Or maybe the lesson is finally learned, the lust for break and exception suddenly ceased, and a simple joy is softly taken in the following of the rules.

3. Remember that Apparent Symbols of Exclusion and Misogyny are Apparent Symbols of Exclusion and Misogyny

About 45 minutes into our scheduled lunch session, a female inmate anxiously approached me, a guard (female as well) close behind.  The officer took the initiative: “Rabbi, are the women also allowed to eat lunch?”  I wish I could wonder where these folks got the idea that Judaism (or me??) would exclude women from enjoying a communal meal, but since we had spent the morning together in an Orthodox service, it was all too obvious.

I’m OK with mechitzas (they’re not my favorite component of Jewish ritual life, but favorites they ain’t meant to be) because I think sophisticated participants can wisely imbue them with holy and righteous meaning.  But outsiders are not sophisticated participants, and what are they to think?

As it turns out, a prayer space that consciously and visibly separates women from the central business of High Holiness broadcasts all sorts of unintended messages  . . . the very messages more sophisticated folks have worked so hard to edit out.

And for some at Rikers, splitting men from women is the loudest message Judaism ever sends.

In my entire stay, I was asked but one question by guards about the meaning and process of Rosh Hashana.  They had just witnessed a Torah service, two silent amidahs, 100 blasts of the shofar, kiddush, hometzi, and numerous prayers for repentance and change, but all they wanted to know was why the men and women were kept apart.  It was, in the ritual year of prison chaplaincy, their image of Jewish worship.  Amidst all the miscommunicated religious needs and bureaucratic slag that complicate celebrating Rosh Hashana in prison, the mechitza was the one ritual item that prison staff delivered with meticulous and professional preparation.  Because someone, somewhere used their power to make sure that Rikers got the mechitza right.

After all, that’s what we do when we consider something essential.

4. Pray how the siddur expects you to: like a criminal.

Praying in prison reveals what our Judgement Day liturgy intends to evoke, and just how far a typical congregation is from that experience. In most communities, when the chazzan prays to “feel not ashamed of my fellow congregants” its an act of theater and hyperbole. Sure, we’ve got our sinners and shmucks like every town, but does anyone sincerely worry about the shame of appearing before God with the folks sitting next to them? Yet that concern is the central pre-occupation of a prisoner’s spiritual-mental life. For years they are surrounded by shameful men in shameful dress and told again a thousand time its your fault and you deserve it. Most inmates react by crafting themselves into an exception – I’m actually innocent; I did it for noble reasons; you should see how the real prisoners act; what sense is there for a Jew to be locked up with these (trigger alert) choshchim?

    So unlike most Jews praying on Rosh Hashana, prisoners don’t feign guilt – they struggle with it. Criminality is a living possibility. They know what it means to wait for one’s fate before a high sitting judge. They know what it’s like to hear the verdict pronounced.  And they’ve imagined returning to those colleagues and friends who used to pleasure-google their name: what was it he did, how again shall be punished?

    And so they also know what it means to put hope in a Judge Unseen but All-Seeing. A Judge who cares not whether your uniform is orange or pin-striped, your home gated or barb-wired (or underwater), your spouse loving or spiteful or passing these lonely nights in another man’s bed, but who gathers each soul on this Day of Memory to issue the same damned command: honor My Kingship with a renewed life of love and righteousness.

    Our machzor wasn’t written for fakers. It was written for criminals.

5. Before Teshuva, there is delusion; but at its start, pride.

When inmates opened up to me about their crimes, the delusions and evasions were heartbreaking. No, I wanted to say, the fact that you lost one thousand dollars doesn’t mean the landlord stole it. No!, he didn’t make you tie him up. Even in the less harrowing details, it often seemed like the entire construction of each story was guided by one motif: “in all these ways and more, not my fault”.

    I was therefore startled by M., who spoke with prescient awareness of his multiple violent assaults and their harm. The question of fault was not a driving force: at points, he affirmed the illegality and even evil of his violence, but he also presented his deeds as the reasonable choice of a less than righteous man confronting a dark moment. They were his decisions, in a circumstance he created, which he was now forced to confront. No one made M. do anything.

    In other words, M. – unlike the vast majority of folks on the outside – is capable of teshuva. The story he wrote for himself was tragic, but at the very least, he was the lead character.

    I’ve thought a lot about what brought M. – sitting in a building defined by irresponsibility – to its very opposite. It hinges on a critical detail in his story, though one he did not overemphasize. M. attacked his victims in order to help a friend facing impossible financial straights. And though it was wrong, and stupid, and didn’t help anyone, M. could hold on to that virtuous seed from which his vice sprang and look at his past without delusion.

    Come each Rosh Hashana, most of us are far too frightened to blame ourselves for our own unfulfilling relationships, middling career exploits, and lukewarm contributions to human betterment. Most people – in jail or out – want desperately to believe that they are good, and radical (i.e. accurate) responsibility gets lost in that desperation. Perhaps the first step to teshuva is affirming the holy desires inherent in our failures – the legitimate need to love that led to heartbreak, the devotion to truth that produced confusion. With faith that God also sees our good side, we can cultivate an honest view of ourselves and aspire to that most Divine act, performed by the Holiest One on his Holiest Day: to take full account of our sins and, in doing so, forgive them.


3 thoughts on “5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

  1. 60 observant Jews out of a population of 14000? Clearly Ray Kelly’s discriminatory practices are having an unconstitutional disparate impact on New Yorkers who are not observant Jews.
    I urge Mayor de Blasio to hire a new Chief who will put lots more observant Jews in jail and release members of other communities.
    Maybe he could place an ad in the Forward.

  2. the role of religion in the correctional environment is very important, and I feel sometimes overlooked. It can be a motivating factor for individuals who are in a situation where their decisions will make an enormous impact on where they are heading in the next months or year of their life. I commend you for taking this pulpit, even though it involved many restrictions and discomforts.

  3. Rabbi,
    Prisoners at Rikers are not necessarily “criminals” unless they were in a special unit that houses inmates serving sentences — not sure of the designations anymore as it’s been awhile since I’ve been there (C-76/Men’s House seems to strike a note).
    The facility is primarily for the *accused* unable to make bail while awaiting trial.
    Kol HaKovod for your efforts however.

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