Friday, June 26th, 2009
While telling prison stories, it’s a good time to remember my late friend, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, for many years the dean of New York’s prison chaplains. Here’s a piece from 1999, when the chaplain left Sing Sing for the final time.
Times moves slowly in Sing Sing. In the early autumn of 1999, through the deep corridors of dungeons built in 1847, walks the prison chaplain appointed 49 years ago by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
Next week, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, a man in his seventies, old yet sprightly, kind and tough, will say his last goodbye to the high walls, making his last lengthy walk up and down steep stairwells and brick corridors, past the clanging gates, the clumping footsteps of passing inmates, and over to the chapel that will be named in his honor.
He knows the room well, of course. When the Yeshiva University graduate first came to Sing Sing there was no particular place for the Jews to come together. Back then there 140, sometimes 180 Jewish prisoners; down in the Death House, 11 of the 19 inmates awaiting the electric chair, were Jews, too.
In 1959, in the Big House, up the hill, Rabbi Koslowe took over a storage room, made phone calls to the “outside” to get someone to donate shabby red vinyl theater seats, screwed in a naked red light bulb for the Eternal Light, and blessed the new synagogue, Beit Shalom V’Tikvah — the room of “peace and hope.”
“Thank the Almighty,” Rabbi Koslowe tells his congregation, “for at least this one room where you’re free, spiritually free.”
These days there are only some 20-30 Jews in Sing Sing, out of more 2,700 inmates. The state has many more prisons now than it did in 1950, and so the Jewish population is more dispersed, but still about 1 percent of those doing time.
You do time with any of these men, Rabbi Koslowe, learned, and you see the souls, withered perhaps, but souls, someone’s son, God’s child if no one else’s. Once some of these men went to New York’s best day schools and shuls; one went to the old Camp Massad. They were smart, just not as smart as they thought they were.
Now they’re doing time, as are we all, on the road to epiphany.
Rabbi Koslowe would stand in front of the ark carved by sinners and speak of the week’s Torah portion, maybe it was Moses killing the Egyptian or Joseph doing time interpreting dreams for other inmates.
Rabbi Koslowe asks his ‘congregants’: “Why is it that Jews always care? Why? What brings visitors up here this morning? I’m sure you didn’t meet before. A youngster out in California is picked up, a Jewish name, we in New York feel keenly about it. You’re picked up in Oklahoma, a Jew a thousand miles away feels bad. We don’t even know these people. Why this bond? We share a destiny, a faith. Chaverim kol Yisroel, every Jew is a friend.
“We’re not so pleased and proud that we have people serving time. Neither are you. I know that,” says Rabbi Koslowe. “I didn’t put you here. I can’t get you out. But a re-evaluiation of values, of positions, of goals and purposes are in order all the time. For you and for me….”
A black inmate bursts into chapel.
“I hope I’m not interrupting the service,” says the inmate.
“No, sit down,” says Rabbi Koslowe. “Take a kippah.”
“What I said was I hope I’m not interrupting. I was locked up some days ago…”
“Okay, just sit down and you’re welcome to come and listen.”
“What happened was..”
“No speeches now. This is not a personal time, we’re going through a service.”
“Listen to me,” says the black man.
“Listen to me, not to you, sir,” says the rabbi.
“I just want some advice.”
“You can get advice after the service.”
“All right, I’ll come back later then.”
“All the best,” says the rabbi as the door slams.
“This is a familiar trait,” says the rabbi. “When there is a problem, some think it always has to be right now.”
Later, Rabbi Koslowe says that he was never touched in anger by a prisoner in all his years.
After services, a Jew who’s doing time for murder says to Rabbi Kolsowe, “We want a kollel here. I’m telling them [the prison’s wardens], we want you here full-time.”
“Do me favor,” says Rabbi Koslowe. “Dont look for work for me.” He’s had a full career away from Sing Sing, as well. For years he was troubleshooting chaplaincy problems in prisons around the state, teaching criminal justice at Mercy College, and serving as spiritual leader of Mamaroneck’s Westchester Jewish Center.
Each prisoner is somebody’s child. Sometimes the prisoners have children of their own. He remembers seeing the children—two boys, 7 and 5 — of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Then, on the 1953 afternoon when they got the chair in Sing Sing, the rabbi went home to say Kiddush for his own 7-year-old, celebrating a birthday that same Friday.
“After Julius was executed, Ethel could have saved herself if she talked. She said she was innocent,” and so the Rosenberg children were orphaned.
“The Rosenberg kids once asked me, ‘Did our parents love us?’ I said, ‘As far as I know, yes, they loved you,’ “ said Rabbi Koslowe.
He remembers Julius and Ethel at prayer services in the Death House. Julius and Ethel were separated by a wall, a Sing Sing mechitza that permitted Rabbi Koslowe to see them both, but they could only hear each other. They’d hear each other’s voices singing Ein Kelohaynu and Adon Olam. “I’d draw them out into conversations, they could hear each other talk.”
She was the only woman executed in his 49 years at Sing Sing.
Over the years, the names have changed. Jews like Julius gave way to ‘Jews’ like Jose, a child of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother. Prison regulations are beautifully pluralist: If any denomination recognizes someone as a Jew, he must be accepted as one by the correctional system, and is eleigible for the kosher diet of cold cuts.
The prisoners wanted to give Rabbi Koslowe a goodbye party. Of course, he had to bring in the party food, the way for years he brought in latkes at Chanukah and blintzes for Shavuot. At the party, they suprised him with a handmade farewell card, fashioned from a beige manila envelope. It was inscribed in blocked Hebrew letters and signed in English and even Chinese.
“Our moments shared were times of hope and joy,” wrote one.
On the card was a carefully crayoned drawing of the chapel, with a bearded Jew, his head covered by a cloak of a flowing woolen tallis, his hands waving goodbye. The waving-fingers were not in steel handcuffs but in the black tefillin leather. There was a picture of a window, no bars, in which a bird was flying away.
Like all prisoners, they appreciate a getaway.