Ever have one of those transformative experiences where you intimately learn about something you have no idea about? I recently went with Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein, Chabad rabbi in Salem, to visit with a Jewish inmate at one of the state’s penitentiaries. The reason for the visit was to meet Charles (not his real name), a handsome muscular Jewish man in his mid-20s, who was soon to be released after serving his prison sentence.
I wanted to better understand life in prison for a Jew, as well as what he would be doing upon his release. Here are a few things I learned from Charles’s perspective:
“Prison is one giant testosterone zone.” You feel as though you are always being tested by others to see how tough or weak you are. In fact, on his second day in prison he was attacked by four other inmates.
His first few years in prison were dominated by time in solitary confinement. Charles talked about the anger he had for being in prison, his frustration at himself for what he did, and the toughness he felt he had to exude. Yet, while alone in a small cell he had a tremendous amount of time for reflection. First, he realized he had to exercise as much as possible, for his own health and sanity, as well as be fit and strong as a deterrent to others while in prison. He taught himself to be an expert chess player and learned to play the guitar (later on he taught himself to be fluent in another foreign language). He also reflected on his Jewish heritage and his desire to learn more about Judaism.
I was deeply moved by Charles’s own telling about his Jewish growth. In his cell he has a siddur (Jewish prayer book) which he reads daily. While sharing a story he literally had goose bumps up and down his arms – he explained that as he reads from the siddur he can hear in his head his grandmother reciting the same words from his childhood. He was truly moved by continuing the Jewish traditions in his family.
Charles also has a set of tefillin (small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by Jews during weekday morning prayers) in his cell which he puts on every morning. (Rabbi Perlstein then shared about the initial challenges of getting tefillin for inmates due to the potential danger they could pose to themselves and/or others).
I wondered about anti-Semitism in prison. Charles mentioned that you are always surrounded by people who hate Jews, so at first he kept his Jewishness a secret. Many of his eventual cellmates had swastika tattoos on their bodies or were self-proclaimed “skinheads.” Yet, later, especially while spending time at another prison with several Jewish inmates, he was able to be a part of the “Jewish crowd.” Little happened to him in prison based on being Jewish, yet Charles was adamant that you learn to keep a low profile and out of other people’s way.
During our 55 minutes together, I could see that Charles is an articulate and bright young man. I was flattered that he would share so much with a stranger. Yet, Charles said at one point, “we are all Jews here and we are here for one another.” As he moves on to his next stage in life (working in the family business), after serving his prison sentence, I am confident he will continue to engage in Jewish life and hope that the Jewish community will reach out to him.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that clergy in our community regularly visit Jewish inmates throughout the state. The numbers are not large, but these individuals are seeking connections and spiritual guidance. In fact, there are several inmates who have asked for and now receive Oregon Jewish Life magazine.
Following my meeting with Charles, Rabbi Perlstein and I sat with the prison chaplain. I can only say with the utmost respect is that he is a true believer. His responses were filled with quotations from scripture and his beliefs were worn on his sleeve. Yet, I have no idea how he does his job on a daily basis with such a positive and comforting demeanor. He shared with me that:
Incredibly, there are 52 different weekly religious services at the two prisons he oversees. I asked to share some examples and the most interesting was the Asatru. The Asatru, which means "belief in the Gods" (think Odin, Thor, Loki) in Old Norse, is the name by which the ancient Norsemen called their religion, which is practiced to this day. The chaplain had to research about the Asatru and make sure they, too, had freedom of religion while in prison.
The chaplain is not only a resource for the inmates, but also spends considerable time counseling the prison guards. He shared the physical and emotional toll on the prison guards both individually and in their family lives. Did you know that the life expectancy of a prison guard is 10 years shorter than the average American due to the stress and strain from the job?
This was an intense two hours. I learned a great deal about a “life” I do not know – nor wish to know. However, the reality is there are Jews in prison – many who care deeply about their Jewish identity. And, for some, one day they will get out of jail and have the opportunity to participate in Jewish communal life, again, “on the outside.” Just like Charles.
PS – Join the community next Friday night, August 17 at Laurelhurst Park for a Jewish community TGIF program. The fun will begin at 6:00 p.m. – bring your entire family and a picnic dinner. Click here for more details.