Even behind bars, Jewish life flourishes
On a breezy summer afternoon at the maximum-security prison that dominates the landscape here, inmates gather around a stocky bearded man as he prepares to blow a shofar. Philip Drelich sounds one long blast and then the crowd disperses, off to their daily routine. Just like many of their coreligionists on the outside, the Jews at this person, the Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York, are mindful of the daily shofar-blowing ritual during the Jewish month of Elul signaling the upcoming High Holidays.
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It’s one of many Jewish observances performed by inmates who have ended up here for crimes ranging from the possession of illegal firearms and drugs to rape and murder.
Despite the unique circumstances -- long prison sentences, convictions for heinous crimes -- Jewish practice is not cast aside at the door of American prisons. Some inmates even use their time to embrace a religion they long had neglected.
"I certainly became more aware of religion here in jail," says Lewis Scharff, a convicted murderer at Green Haven who spoke to JTA at the prison synagogue, just opposite the Catholic chapel. "We have two people who found teshuvah during their time here,” he said, using the Hebrew word for repentance.
Walking down the long, bleak corridors of Green Haven, which are kept immaculately clean by an army of inmates constantly mopping the floors, a number of convicts wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit are visible. Every morning and on Shabbat, about 12 regulars show up for prayer services at the prison synagogue; more than double that number are expected for the High Holidays. On Passover, inmates lead the seders.
On Sukkot, says Drelich, who is at Green Haven serving a life sentence for murder, the prison will have two sukkahs: “One for those in solitary confinement, and the other in the general quarters.”
"A Yid is a Yid, a Jew is a Jew," says Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who visits Green Haven frequently to minister to inmates. "The soul remains pure.”
Maximum-security prisons in the United States have relatively few Jewish inmates, according to the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated organization that reaches out to Jews behind bars. Most Jews in the prison system usually end up at lower-security facilities for crimes such as fraud or tax evasion.
But Green Haven has enough Jewish inmates that it is the only prison in New York with a hot kosher kitchen, where kosher food is prepared on site rather than being brought in pre-cooked from the outside. Of the 1,984 inmates there, 150 are listed as Jewish. About 70 are on the kosher meal plan.
Boyarsky says he doesn't think of the crimes committed by the inmates to whom he offers help.
“We're not helping them get out of prison, we're helping them spiritually -- to bring them to a state of mind which had they had exposure to, maybe they wouldn't have done what they did,” he says.
Despite the rigid nature of prison life, authorities say they go out of their way to allow Jewish worship and practice. Jewish inmates at Green Haven have a synagogue and a rabbi who works part-time five days a week. And as at all prisons in New York State, the inmates are permitted to keep tefillin in their cells.
"I had a prison guard who asked me, 'Do we really want to let them have these leather straps? They might harm themselves with them, or someone else,' " recalls Mark Leonard, director of Ministerial Family and Volunteer Services for New York State. "But it's important for them to have the phylacteries, and in my seven years on the job I've never heard of any problems."
It is not known exactly how many of America’s 2.3 million inmates are Jewish. The Aleph Institute says it helps 4,000 inmates and their families, and that at least another 1,000 Jews are in prisons. But data provided by New York prison authorities suggest there are many more. In New York alone,
officials say about 3,800 inmates have identified themselves on official forms as Jewish.
In recent years, the identifiably Jewish prison population of New York State has risen dramatically -- to 6 percent of the prison population today from 1 percent a decade ago. Rather than indicating a hike in crimes committed by Jews, state officials say it’s a result of a dramatic increase in the number of convicts choosing to identify religiously -- usually for the benefits they entail.
"By declaring yourself part of a religious group -- any religious group -- you become entitled to rights, like being able to grow your hair or a beard," Leonard says. Other benefits include the right to congregate, wear religious garments and have access to reading material, to name a few.
"Also,” he says, “there is this notion that the kosher food is better."
The hub of Jewish life at Green Haven is the kosher kitchen, which dishes out three meals a day. The kosher supervisor, Rony Berkoviz, an Israeli-born inmate jailed for a offense, proudly displays the separate dairy, meat and parve sets of dishes and cutlery and explains how the kitchen works.
Berkoviz laughs when asked if the kosher food is better than the standard fare.
"About 90 percent of the time it is exactly the same food," he says. "It might just be a little more cooked, that's all. But some people think it's better."
Jewish inmates say that although relations between Jewish and non-Jewish convicts at the prison are good, the Jews tend to stick to their own kind in the highly stratified society.
None of the Jewish inmates interviewed at Green Haven say they have encountered anti-Semitism, and state prison authorities say hate groups are not tolerated.
However, the Aleph Institute said that some Jewish inmates in other states have reported being harassed by anti-Semitic groups like the Aryan Brotherhood.
"Being religious here is good, and we're not harassed by anyone," says Demian Barovick, who is in Green Haven for drug possession and assists Berkoviz in the kosher kitchen. "I have an excellent job where I get to hang out with fellow Jews."
"If you respect everyone, then you get no problems," Berkoviz adds.
Many Jewish inmates at Green Haven are old and frail. Some use walking canes and require routine medical checkups. At times it takes some mental effort to recall that they are rapists and murderers.
Drelich, who has been at Green Haven for 29 years and is the most veteran Jewish inmate there, says observing Judaism in the prison is no different than anywhere else, with one notable exception. He points to the notice board near the entrance to the prison's synagogue.
“The only difference is that instead of putting ‘Have a healthy, peaceful new year,’ " he says, "we put, ‘Have a healthy, free and peaceful new year.' ”