Rabbinic Students Help Keep Judaism Alive Behind Prison Walls

In loyalty, you sustain the living, nurturing the life of everything, healing the sick, freeing the captive.

Jessica Rosenberg, a senior at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia, has often been inspired and troubled by these words of gratitude in the daily morning prayers. What does it mean that God frees the captive and heals the sick, knowing some people never achieve freedom or recover from certain illnesses? Does it mean that God only delivers some people and not others? Or should the words be interpreted metaphorically?

No amount of wrestling with Jewish liturgy quite prepared Rosenberg for chanting the prayer alongside prisoners at the Graterford State Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

“We say that God is the one who frees. But what does it mean for guys with life sentences?” said Rosenberg, acknowledging that easy answers have been hard to come by. “Every time I prepare a d’var Torah for the congregation, I think: How does this read to someone incarcerated? Incarcerated for life? What rings true, what is challenging, what is more painful? I learn something new about Torah every time.”

For the past year, Rosenberg has, on a volunteer basis, led monthly Shabbat services for the Reform-movement-affiliated congregation housed at Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison. Occasionally, she and a classmate have been paid by an outside group that works with Jewish inmates to lead holiday services and programs, such as a Passover seder. 

Rosenberg’s goal is to serve as a pastoral presence to the prisoners — to fill a need while gaining valuable rabbinic experience. Her involvement is motivated by a commitment to the idea that everyone is entitled to live a meaningful Jewish life, especially those who have done wrong and face a lifetime of repentance. Rosenberg’s volunteerism also reflects her approach to social-justice activism, previous work on prison reform and deep concern with the state of mass incarceration in America.

“One of the things I find most interesting is that the congregation, in many ways, is similar to many other congregations I have worked with,” said Rosenberg, who will graduate from RRC in June. “People come for different reasons. One member comes because he finds it spiritually meaningful. There is definitely one guy who only goes because it makes his mother happy. In some ways, it is just like any other Shabbat service. But in other ways, it is a world away.”

According to Gary L. Kretchmar, a Graterford inmate and longtime congregation president, volunteers like Rosenberg can play an enormous role in the lives of prisoners.

“Volunteers simply help inmates by treating us as human beings,” Kretchmar wrote in a letter. “Most inmates will complete their prison sentences and reintegrate into society, in most cases the community where they lived prior to their arrest. Volunteers can play an effective role in inmates successfully reintegrating into society.”

Also, Kretchmar wrote, volunteers, especially those with clergy credentials, can serve as “a bridge between our congregation and the prison administration. Administrators can make unilateral decisions about how and when they permit inmates to gather for religious services and holiday observances.” But when volunteers are scheduled to visit, “there is community oversight and this serves as an effective deterrent to the abridgement of our religious rights by government officials.”

The Graterford congregation has existed for decades and is no stranger to publicity; it has been the focus of several stories in The New York Times. RRC students and Reconstructionist rabbis have long interacted with inmates in both official and unofficial capacities, with some having served as chaplains employed by the state. From the early 1980s until 2016, the congregation had its own permanent space in the prison, in addition to its own Torah scroll and prayer books. The congregation was forced to give that up because, according to news reports, the space did not meet more expansive safety requirements established under the 2015 Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Despite the lack of a permanent space dedicated to worship, congregational life continues. The inmates are served on a somewhat limited basis by a Conservative rabbi employed by the state. And a group of volunteers affiliated with Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, has taken it upon themselves to see that the congregants’ needs are met. It was through this group that Rosenberg and her classmate, Micah Weiss, became connected to the congregation and the inmates.

“The Jewish community and the entire community want to forget about people in prison,” said Robert Lankin, a financial advisor who leads the Beth Sholom group and has been visiting Jewish inmates at Graterford since 1980. Lankin noted that “society is not interested in people in prison. Prisoners have needs, desires, problems. If we don’t look out for them, who will?”

He praised Rosenberg for her commitment and the preparation she puts into the services.

“She prepares for it like she was leading services for hundreds of people,” said Lankin. “I told her: ‘You’re not going to be a great rabbi, you are a great rabbi.’ ”

Rosenberg said she encourages people on the outside to “try to hold prisoners in their hearts and minds when they’re davening or studying Torah. In the same way that feminists have asked about women’s experiences in Torah, including when women and women’s voices are missing from the story, we can widen our circle and ask: How does this liturgy, how does this holiday, how does this parsha make sense in a world where we have life sentences without the chance of parole?”

Rosenberg isn’t the only RRC student who has enhanced the lives of Jewish inmates in Graterford. Last Passover, RRC student Micah Weiss filled in for Rosenberg in running a seder there.

“All Jews have the right to celebrate Pesach, wherever they are. I am grateful that there was the infrastructure for these folks to have a seder,” he said. “It was an honor to be there with this community.”

Like the morning prayers, the freedom story inherent in the Passover narrative presents a conundrum for those living behind bars.

“It is really hard to go through a ritual of liberation while incarcerated. We named that and faced it together,” said Weiss. “Some people wanted to talk about internal liberation, finding peace and acceptance, and finding liberation within regardless of what the external situation looks like. Other folks thought that was ignoring the oppressive reality that they fight.”

In his letter from prison, Kretchmar indicated a clear message he hoped to share with the wider Reconstructionist community.

“If I can impart one message to the Reconstructionist community it would be that volunteering in local, state and federal jails or prisons to conduct Jewish services or holiday observances is a mitzvah. Jewish prisoners are isolated and are often harangued by Christian outreach efforts. Supporting Jewish prisoners during their term of confinement provides the necessary support to keep the practice of Judaism alive behind prison walls.”


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