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Jews Behind Bars: Part 2 – Jewish Chaplains behind Bars

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Last time we began our look at Jews behind bars. Today, we meet the chaplains who volunteer to meet with them – and one woman who has accompanied Jewish death row inmates as they face execution.

Why do they do it? Why would anyone want to be a chaplain to Jewish prisoners?

Visiting prisons certainly isn’t glamorous and raising the money to maintain Jewish prison programs isn’t easy. But dedicated volunteers, rabbis and laypeople, fan out across North America month after month to do just that. Here are some of their stories – and how you can join them, if you want.

For Rabbi Mark Borvitz, being a chaplain gave him the opportunity to do a “Cheshbon HaNefesh” – an accounting of the soul for the immoral and illegal activities he had been involved with for so many years.

“My name is Mark Borovitz and I am a Rabbi,” he writes at HuffPost.com. “I am also a recovering alcoholic and recovering criminal, having done two terms in the California State Prison System. I am also a husband, father, brother and son. I am also the Senior Rabbi and Spiritual Leader of …non-sectarian residential and intensive outpatient addiction recovery centre in Los Angeles.”

Twenty-year-olds Chaim Bronstein and Ari Shapiro spent a summer on a different kind of road trip a few years ago. As part of the Chabad chaplaincy program, the young rabbis from Brooklyn traveled the backroads of California visiting Jewish inmates in 39 state and federal prisons. “It is a very harsh environment,” said Bronstein, “But it’s specifically here in this environment where the human soul is so desperate for connection. Many of the inmates are so grateful for our few minutes together. It’s amazing to see what kind of emotion it brings out of a person. … And if someone wonders, what are we doing here? I say, ‘this is Chabad. We’re here to help.’”

After reading about lay people who devoted time to Jewish prisoners, writer Jane Davis decided to do the same, “listening to stories of lost souls. Something that I can only ascribe to my Jewish soul came forth. I responded to what I heard as an area of tremendous neglect.” As a result of her work, Davis was invited to be a media witness for an electric chair execution. She agreed and began searching out the handful of other Jews on Death Row in the United States.

“I was appalled at the lack of support or interest from the Jewish communities,” Davis said. “Rather than point fingers, I responded by doing the work myself. One of the men was told he would have a minister when he got his execution date. As a result, I was eventually ordained by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi so that I could be present in the execution chamber so that Jesus would not be evoked.”

Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains provides support for “rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish professionals functioning as Jewish chaplains in hospitals, nursing homes and geriatric centres, hospices, psychiatric facilities, correctional centres, and the military.” Their site quotes from Psalms 147:3, “God is the Healer of the broken hearted and the One who binds their sorrows.”


Lacking a nation-wide Jewish chaplaincy organization in Canada, a number of rabbis have taken it upon themselves to care for the needs of Jewish prisoners. Rabbi Ronald Weiss is Director of Chaplaincy Services at Jewish Family & Child Service of Greater Toronto. His team of chaplains work with correctional institutions across Ontario.

“I feel we do a good job within the constraints placed upon us in meeting the needs of those Jews in jail,” Weiss told the Canadian Jewish News. “The institutions by and large are very understanding and will do what they can to meet legitimate and reasonable requests. But individuals in custody are not happy campers – they’re legitimately unhappy with their situation. I wish we could do more for them, but we’re not lawyers … There are specific rules within which we have to operate.”

Jewish Services of Canada is a volunteer-run organization that arranges Jewish programs for Canadian prisoners, mainly at the Toronto South Detention Centre and the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay. It was created by Rabbi Michael Csillag after one of his friends was sent to prison. Rabbi Csillag wanted to ensure the convict had access to Judaism, even though he said that “it was a battle.” As he told the CJN, “It’s important to show the selfless love that each Jew has for one another.” The CJN profiled some other remarkable Canadian chaplains in 2015.

There’s room for you in prison even if you’re not a rabbi. Mike Top visited inmates on behalf of Jewish Family and Child Services of Toronto as a volunteer chaplain. “Am I making a difference? I wish I knew. … I have no illusions. If I’m making any changes, they are so microscopic as to be virtually undetectable in the grand scheme of things. But each individual in this world changes the world in some fashion. It is up to us, using the free will that the Holy One, Blessed be He, has granted us, to choose whether that change will be positive or negative.”

Judith Fein summed up the what it was like meeting chaplains and others who volunteered behind bars. “It was moving for me to talk to others who had been deeply impacted by incarcerated Jews. They all concurred that their job is not judging or figuring out who is guilty or innocent; there are courts, juries, judges and the Ultimate Judge who do that. People who hurt others are most often people who were hurt and need love and support.”

You don’t have to enter a prison to maintain contact with a Jewish prisoner. The Aleph Institute’s Prison Writing Program allows you to do a “mitzvah with a postage stamp.” Jewish Prisoner Services International calls pen-palling safe, pleasant and rewarding and has offered important advice for anyone interested:

  • Do not use your home address.
  • Do not send family photos to prisoners.
  • Do not ask why a person is in prison.
  • It is acceptable to discuss religion, politics & personal philosophies but don’t ever proselytize, evangelize or otherwise pressure a pen pal to “see it your way.”

And what does all this means to the prisoners? Gila Lyons writes in Tablet about the effect of her mother’s pen pal correspondence on one Jewish inmate. “When I got out of the hole it was waiting for me. I was at the lowest point in my existence. I had given up on tikvah, and was letting myself slip into a darkness that I had never experienced before. I had no connection to the outside, except for the monthly newsletter from Aleph. That changed on the 16th when I awoke to find a letter stuck in my door. … I opened it and read, then re-read it. I thought, why would this woman, whom I did not know, write me, when the only thing that we shared in common was the fact that we were Jews? Then it dawned on me—that was the sole reason for the letter, one Jew reaching out to another … it meant a lot.”

Next time, what the Torah says about incarceration and the treatment of prisoners.