Rabbis go to jail to learn more about Jews there
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Rabbis go to jail to learn more about Jews there

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From left, Rabbis David Senter and Steven Sirbu visit the Bergen County jail as part of an SLI program.

While most Jews will celebrate Passover in the homes of family or friends, some will spend the holiday in jail. And while their seder meal – at least at the Bergen County Jail – may be a step up from what is usually served there, it will be nothing like the traditional feast enjoyed by the rest of us.

According to Rabbi Barry Schneider, chaplain at the Bergen County Jail – a 1,250-bed facility in Hackensack – the number of Jews housed at the facility generally ranges from 11 to 21. Right now, there are 18.

Inmates are asked about their faith when they are first admitted. The jail’s clergy include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic chaplains.

“Some people are afraid to say they’re Jewish, but mostly I know,” said Schneider, who participated in Tuesday’s program “Jews in Jail,” coordinated by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative in cooperation with the Bergen County Sheriff’s office.

Judy Beck, director of SLI, said that most Jews aren’t aware that a number of their co-religionists are among those incarcerated. She and Schneider had invited Bergen County rabbis to visit the jail both to raise awareness and to make them better able to address congregants’ concerns, should they or their family members ever be sent to jail.

“The purpose of the program is to serve as a wake-up call to the Jewish community that there is a middle-class population of Jews currently incarcerated in the Bergen County facility,” according to a UJA-NNJ statement. And “most of those jailed are serving sentences for alcohol and drug abuse.”

Among those in attendance were Rabbis Kenneth Stern (Fort Lee), Steven Sirbu (Teaneck), David Senter (Pompton Lakes), Debra Hachen (Closter), Jonathan Woll (Fair Lawn), and Benjamin Taub, kashrut coordinator for the Teaneck-based Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Presenters included Sheriff Leo P. McGuire; Patrick Hughes, director of behavioral health services at the jail; Barbara Morgan, drug court coordinator; and Sherrine Simes, prevention specialist for The Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources in Hackensack.

Participants were taken on a tour of the jail, visiting intake areas, meeting rooms, cells, classroom areas, library facilities, and the Drug Recovery Center. Formal presentations focused on the causes of addiction – 90 percent of the jail’s nearly 900 inmates are there because of substance abuse – and the drug court, which provides an alternative to incarceration in nonviolent drug-related cases. According to McGuire, while the jail is primarily a corrective action facility, its approach is “holistic, integrating clergy, mental health services, and medical care. We have a very high level of personnel,” he said, adding that the goal of the jail is to make inmates productive citizens when they re-enter society. “Especially in this economy, we realize that we’re a cog in the wheel, and we’re strongly positioned to help.”

Schneider, who also serves as chaplain at Bergen Regional Medical Center, said that while the average age of all inmates is 34, Jews – who come from all over Bergen County – tend to be a bit older. Among the current crop are inmates ranging from 21 to 63.

Women, only 10 percent of the total prison population, compose about 8 percent of the Jewish group, said Schneider, who observed that Jewish inmates’ offenses run the gamut from shoplifting to fraud to sex crimes. Some are in the immigration wing of the jail and may not have a committed a crime but only overstayed a visa.

“We always have one or two there,” said Schneider, who serves as an advocate for all Jewish inmates. “Most of my job is counseling,” he said, pointing out that he works 10 hours a week at the jail. “There’s so few [Jews], I get to know them personally,” he said, adding that he is sometimes called upon to speak with inmates’ families.

“We never get much of a [religious] service,” said the chaplain. “People are in different units” and there is rapid turnover. He noted, however, that some inmates have been there for about six months. Undersheriff Allen Ust pointed out that the average stay is 40 days, “but it can range from several minutes to several years,” depending on the length of the trial process.

Recently, though, five Jewish women were in detention at one time and Schneider held a brief Friday night service, with candlelighting and kiddush, provided by UJA-NNJ.

“One of the women cried,” he said. “She remembered lighting candles as a girl.”

Holding up a kosher-food container, Schneider pointed out that the packaged kosher meals, provided twice a day, are rather spare, so people who choose to keep kosher do it out of conviction rather than because the food is superior.In addition to ensuring that prisoners who want kosher food can get it, Schneider tries to provide prayerbooks and other Jewish reading material to the Jewish inmates, and on Purim, he brought them each mishloach manot.

While the problems and experiences of the Jewish inmates tend to echo those of the other prisoners, some unique issues do arise. For example, said Schneider, one Jewish man being fitted for a name bracelet, usually worn on the left arm, asked the chaplain to intervene, since he ordinarily wraps his tefillin on that arm.

“They were very accommodating,” said Schneider, noting that the bracelet was subsequently placed on the inmate’s right arm. In addition, those who generally wear kippot are able to do so, but only when they eat or pray or when they are in their cells. No head coverings are permitted in the common areas.

Schneider said he has heard of only two incidents of anti-Semitism at the jail, both verbal, with one involving an officer, the other a fellow inmate.

Ust said that while the jail makes every effort to accommodate inmates’ religious needs, he sometimes calls upon Schneider as a “buffer” to explain the jail’s security needs to inmates and their families.

Schneider asked the rabbis to think of the chaplaincy program when disposing of “anything a synagogue would use.” He said the Jewish inmates in jail could especially use soft-cover books (hard-cover books are not allowed, as they pose a security risk) and books in Russian and other languages for those in the immigration block. In addition, he is seeking donations of kosher tefillin. While books like novels can be delivered directly to the jail, Jewish items should be donated through SLI.

Woll said he was “helped immensely” by the program, and Stern pointed out that it was the responsibility of those rabbis present to tell their colleagues that “they should have been here.” He further noted that should he get a call from a congregant about a relative in jail – although, he pointed out, families try to keep such things quiet and won’t open up even to their rabbi – he will know better how to reassure the family. “If I know, then I can be of service,” he said.

For further information about SLI and the chaplaincy program, call SLI’s Beck at (201) 820-3900.

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