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Yom Kippur In The Big House

Yom Kippur In The Big House

‘For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly. And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.”

These English words have always appeared opposite the traditional Hebrew text of the viduy (confession) for Yom Kippur. I don’t usually pay much attention to them because my Hebrew is pretty good, and most of the al chet’s, as they are known, are said quietly.

But not at the Yom Kippur services I went to this year. This time, each al-chet was recited out loud and in English by a group of 20 convicted felons. It was a powerful reminder of the value of confession and forgiveness on the Day of Atonement.

I was in a small utility room at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, Va. Together with friends from the University of Maryland, we helped Jewish inmates conduct Yom Kippur services.

The other students had been to Petersburg the year before and were eager to see the familiar faces of felons they knew would still be in prison. We drove three hours from College Park, Md., to Petersburg and parked beside the RV where we would sleep that night. We brought food, prayer books, a Torah scroll and a shofar, all provided by Maryland Hillel.

The prison complex is composed of two separate facilities: one that is “Medium Security” and another that is “Low Security.” On Yom Kippur eve, two of us went to the medium-security prison for Kol Nidre services. It was surreal walking into prison with a Torah scroll and prayer books — and waiting for a lockdown to clear before we could enter the building.

I expected a socially awkward crowd that was not knowledgeable about traditional Judaism. A friend who volunteered at this prison last year said that the inmates in “Medium,” as it’s called by the prisoners and guards, prefer discussions to prayers. I was prepared to lead Kol Nidre since I assumed no one there would be able to do it.

As it turned out, the prisoners had their own cantor and insisted on doing a full service.

The congregation had changed dramatically over the previous year with the addition of two inmates with chasidic backgrounds: “Shlomo” had assumed the role of cantor and synagogue president, and was keen on leading Kol Nidre himself. He was a natural leader who was at ease running the show. He led a great service not only because he had a good voice, but also because he knew his congregation well. He led everyone in lighting the Yom Kippur and yizkor candles; I was moved watching the inmates wave their hands and cover their eyes before saying the blessing together.

In many respects, the service had the feel of a normal synagogue: there was a constant din of chatter in the back row and people walking in and out. My friend delivered a short sermon, which was well received. Afterwards, we schmoozed about life in prison.

Some advice I received: Don’t go to prison; you can commit some misdemeanors here and there, but avoid the felonies. (We were told not to ask about the inmates’ pasts; we later learned that many were there for sexual offenses.)

The next day, I went to “Low.” It was a very different experience: there were only eight inmates, and it was a mostly older crowd. It was far less lively, and we sped through the services; it had the feel of a dying congregation. My friend and I led parts of the services, but the rest was done by an inmate cantor with a beautiful voice.

This unusual Yom Kippur was organized by the Aleph Institute and Maryland Hillel. Aleph is a Chabad-affiliated group dedicated to providing for the religious needs of Jewish inmates nationwide.

When not praying, we learned about what life is like for Jews in prison: about the politics and tension between the Jewish and Jews-for-Jesus groups in both prisons, the large gay pride festival that “Shlomo” organized in Medium, and all the different types of contraband one could acquire (vegetables, deep fryers).

What struck me most about my experience was how the inmates were immensely thankful for and attached to their respective communities. To them, coming to services was a way to connect with their friends in prison, and to their lives before prison. As with Jewish communities everywhere, those ties were compelling forces in forging and preserving their religious identities.

Perhaps next year, I’ll say my al chets a bit louder.

Akiva Lichtenberg is a senior at the University of Maryland and will be a fellow at Mechon Hadar in the spring.

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