Despite all the crimes and misdemeanors listed in the Bible, the Lubavitcher rebbe once pointed out, the Torah didn’t suggest prison as a place for Jewish punishment. Prison was seen as something out of Egypt, the embodiment of unrelenting exile, a place where Joseph did hard time on a bum rap.
On the other hand, the ancient prophets surely never envisioned prison as a place of Gatsby-like privilege, where a Jewish chaplain could arrange a catered six-hour bar mitzvah for the son of a Jewish crook, complete with 60 outside guests and an orchestra, all with the permission of the chaplain’s superiors in the Department of Corrections.
That extravaganza led to a criminal investigation still rippling through the DOC, with the chaplain, Rabbi
Leib Glanz, resigning his post at the Manhattan prison known as “the Tombs.”
And yet, the shock at one chaplain’s excess has also led to an illumination of vast goodness, a network of honest rabbinic chaplains, meagerly compensated, and Jewish volunteers working in obscurity on behalf of Jewish souls locked away in what is, more often than not, a dangerous and subterranean culture.
“It’s a challenging position,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of his chaplain days at the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center. Aside from arranging kosher food and providing religious books and materials, “You’re dealing with people who are going through difficult times. You try to bring some spiritual wholeness to shattered lives, not just the inmates’ but their families’. They have a sense of shame, estrangement, alienation. Their kids might be ridiculed in school because their parents are in prison.”
There are usually seven rabbis working in New York City prisons, but one moved to the state prison system, and Glanz’s resignation has lowered the number to five. The replacements, said Rabbi Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, often come from the board, which offers accredited training and ongoing professional support.
The board will nominate several candidates — not necessarily members of the NYBR — for each position. The DOC usually accepts the board’s recommendations (as does the state prison system), but the appointments can be political. The tapping of Rabbi Glanz, a Satmar dealmaker, came directly from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Nevertheless, said Rabbi Potasnik, “The Leib Glanz I know looked to accommodate the religious needs of inmates. He obviously went too far, but there was no malice. Look, it embarrasses everyone. There are prisoners who hear about this, they want to know why they have such difficulty. There has to be one standard.”
More Jews end up handcuffed in the back of police cars than one might suppose. Though there is no exact figure, Rabbi Baruch Leibowitz estimates there are 1,000 Jews among the approximately 14,000 inmates on Rikers Island, New York’s primary detention center. Inmates come and go, awaiting bail and plea bargains. Nevertheless, the chaplain said, he only gets “between seven and 13” Jews for the one weekly service he officiates, a Tuesday afternoon Mincha.
Rabbi Leibowitz, ordained by Rav Moshe Feinstein at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, dismissed the conventional wisdom that Jews are imprisoned only for white-collar crimes: “Whatever you read about people going to jail for, that’s what Jews go to jail for. That Jews only do white-collar crimes is not a valid notion.”
It’s not a new phenomenon, either. In 1950, 11 of the 19 inmates on Sing Sing’s “death row” were members of “the tribe” — a lost tribe, at that.
Rabbi Velvel Butman, the Chabad emissary to Westchester, began volunteering in prisons in Ossining, Bedford Hills and Valhalla in 1993, to help with the modest celebrations for Jewish holidays.
Chaplains, who have modest budgets, “are very happy to accommodate us,” said Rabbi Butman. “We bring whatever we need, staff and goods, spirit and songs, we bring the tefillin, the meat slices, salads, all the refreshments and we do it for free. It actually costs us money. Who pays for that? The shaliach has to raise this money himself.”
Rabbi Butman says, “Some prisons we go to regularly, some we’re on-call. If an inmate or relative gets farblunjit [lost and confused], they’ll ask us for help.
Valhalla, a prison shared by the federal, state and county governments, “has no chaplain coming through on a regular basis. On Sukkot we put up a portable sukkah in the yard, we danced with the inmates, with lulav and etrog. For that, of course, we need clearance. But any inmate has the right to individual visitation, so we can do that more easily. Even for individual visits, I always contact the chaplain anyway, to maintain friendship.”
The Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “always taught us to remember and love every Jew, regardless of their circumstances,” said Rabbi Butman, “even if they’re in prison.”
In the 1970s, said Rabbi Butman, “the rebbe launched a campaign for us to care about Jewish inmates. After hearing the rebbe would speak about it a number of times at fabrengens [chasidic gatherings], one student, Yossi, went to my father,” Rabbi Shmuel Butman, director of Lubavitch Youth Organization, “to get money to rent a car. He’d drive to prisons eight hours, 10 hours away,” said the Westchester shaliach.
“The rebbe was following this very closely and gave a lot of directives. One year, Yossi got a call from the rebbe’s senior secretary on the night of Bedikas Chomets [before Passover], saying, ‘the rebbe wants to know if you brought matzahs to prisoners upstate.’
Yossi says yes. Then, ‘The rebbe wants to know if you provided a kosher l’pesach oven so inmates can heat their food.’ It didn’t dawn on him that he had to go that far. So Yossi goes right away to an electronics store in Crown Heights, gets a small portable oven, drives upstate for seven or eight hours — remember, this is the night before Pesach — delivers it, and comes back the next day just in time for the seder.
“After that, Yossi realized how serious was the rebbe’s commitment to each Jewish prisoner, if the rebbe cared on a busy night before the seder to make sure that not only was there food but hot food. Yossi — and the rest of us — realized we had to do more.”
Under the direction of the rebbe, the Aleph Institute, a nonprofit national charitable organization was started in 1981, to institutionalize assistance to Jews in prisons.
One Jewish businessman, who asked for anonymity, said he specializes in helping Israeli prisoners. He said they have to deal with cultural and language difficulties in addition to anti-Semitism and other problems. “Their families are often in Israel; they can’t visit, or visit regularly, so they don’t have that support, either.”
This volunteer said he’s been working about 20 hours a month for the past 13 years, with the help of a pro bono lawyer, to help Israeli prisoners finish serving their sentence in Israel, under an existing international treaty that says that foreign nationals can complete their sentence in their home country.
Despite the scandal of the Satmar chaplain, and the fears about Islamic chaplains spreading radical Islam in prison, there is a strange pattern of back scratching among these chaplains. The supervisor of the city’s 40 chaplains is Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil, who in 2006 told inmates in upstate’s Woodbourne prison that President George W. Bush was “the biggest terrorist in the world.” He also has spoken out against “Zionists in the media.”
Despite being condemned by Jewish organizations and investigated by the FBI, he was publicly defended as a good person by chaplains Rabbi Leibowitz and Rabbi Glanz, even though Rabbi Glanz, as a Giuliani appointee was thought to be Abdul-Jalil’s political opposite.
In turn, it was Abdul-Jalil who gave Rabbi Glanz permission for the controversial in-prison bar mitzvah. The imam was reprimanded, but did not lose his job, was praised for his good work by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the investigation continues.