COVER STORY: Jews in Jail

Canadian prisons are home to some 200 Jews. From kosher food to prayer services and religious counselling, a small, but dedicated group of rabbis are ensuring their needs aren’t forgotten.

When Rabbi Zushe Silberstein heard that the Jewish inmate standing before him in a Montreal jail was due to be released in just three days, he didn’t hesitate. 

“My daughter is getting married this weekend,” he said. “I would be honoured if you could attend the wedding.” 

The prisoner stared at him with unbelieving eyes, certain he had misheard. A rabbi inviting a newly released prisoner to a family wedding? It seemed impossible. But in the next breath, Rabbi Silberstein was offering to help arrange a suit if needed. It was clear his invitation came from the heart.

The conversation between the two men occurred two years ago, and that weekend, the ex-convict did indeed attend the wedding. 

“No one knew where he came from, and at the wedding he danced with presidents of synagogues, family and friends, just like anyone else,” Rabbi Silberstein recalls. “At one point he approached me, clearly emotional, asking what kind of gift he could give the bride and groom. I told him, “The gift you’ll give will be a promise that never again will you go back to jail.’ He gave that gift and he’s leading a straight life now.”

The encounter was nothing extraordinary for Rabbi Silberstein, who heads Chabad Chabanel in Montreal and regularly visits Jewish inmates in Quebec jails. “We bring them food and sandwiches, we daven, put on tfillin with them and celebrate Jewish holidays with them,” he says. There’s a seder at Pesach, a Megillah reading on Purim, menorahs on Chanukah and services on Rosh Hashanah. 

But it’s not just about pushing spirituality, he insists. 

“My main thrust has always been to tell these marginalized Jews, ‘You’re not alone, you’re not forgotten. There’s someone out there who cares about you.’ We’re there to comfort, to advise them and to show them the Jewish community cares about them… Chabad is at the forefront of this care, here and everywhere else,” Rabbi Silberstein says. 

Fifteen years ago, the rabbi founded Maison Belfield as a halfway house for up to six men at a time, offering newly released Jewish inmates shelter, food, clothing, therapy and reintegration assistance. Aiding Jewish prisoners is a consuming task and one he takes seriously.

“The [late Chabad] Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] teaches us not to forget any Jew, no matter where she or he may be,” he explains. 

“If there’s a Jewish person in need, we must care for them. It’s why my children and I have more than once travelled 14 hours to help one single Jew in jail. My Shabbos table often has former inmates gathered around it.” 

Over the 30 years Rabbi Silberstein has been involved with Jewish prison chaplaincy, he’s seen all kinds of Jews behind bars, “from a prominent lawyer to children from dysfunctional homes to people with substance abuse issues and those who are highly affluent,” he says. “Nobody is immune to falling into this kind of situation.”

He refused to disclose the number of Jews presently incarcerated in Montreal, saying only “one is too many” and acknowledging that High Holiday services and Passover seders in the jails see an attendance of up to 10 people. 

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said that as of March 31, 2014, there were 177 offenders who identified themselves as being Jewish, representing 0.8 per cent of the total prison population. That was up from 159 in April 2005.

Rabbi Zushe Silberstein

CSC engages Jewish chaplains who regularly provide religious services, religious education programs and one-on-one counselling with Jewish inmates, said CSC spokesperson Julie O’Brien. “If a Jewish offender has a rabbi, the chaplain will put the two in contact.” 

Chaplains may approve kosher diets for inmates who require them, a religious dietary policy that was first formalized in 1992. It’s a policy Rabbi Silberstein was very much involved in. 

“Thirty years ago, the provincial government refused to allow kosher food, and we had to pay $30,000 to provide it to Jewish prisoners,” he recalls. “Eventually, under threat that we’d go to the Supreme Court of Canada, the federal and provincial governments eventually provided that kosher food at government expense, after the minister saw that we were serious and would not give up. Today, in Quebec’s prison systems, we have excellent co-operation for the needs of Jewish prisoners.”

O’Brien says the CSC ensures spiritual accommodation to assist offenders in practising their religion or spirituality as fully as they desire within the correctional setting, up to a level generally available to people in the community. The Jewish community also has representation on the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy, an advisory group on religious and spiritual practice for inmates in CSC institutions.

Rabbi Ronald Weiss, director of chaplaincy services at Jewish Family & Child in Toronto, says that over the past 20 years, he and his team of chaplains have worked with federal, provincial and municipal 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,” he says. “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, we’re not able to put up bail or sign on as surety. There are specific rules within which we have to operate.”

There were 50 Jewish inmates in Ontario jails 20 years ago, but today Weiss estimates the number is closer to 75. 

“When Jewish inmates have needs that come to our attention, we meet them to the best of our ability in working with the institutions,” he says.

In some cases, this involves making tfillin available to Jewish inmates who want to put them on. Jail can present significant challenges to daily observance, Rabbi Weiss says. In most cases, an inmate can only put on tfillin under supervision because the straps are deemed a security risk by the Ministry of Correctional Services. 

Funding for visits to Jewish inmates and to support the expenses of institutions such as Maison Belfield in Montreal is direly needed, Rabbi Silberstein says. 

“Prayer books cost money and so does the seder, the tfillin and the food we bring to Jewish inmates each week,” he says. “Our halfway house is also an expensive proposition, with a mortgage and heating to be paid and the costs of regular living supplies in addition to food, clothing and therapy.”

Chabad of Richmond, B.C., recently replaced its High Holiday prayer books and was looking for a new home for its several hundred older versions, which were still in great condition. When Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman posted on a Chabad site that he was ready to pass them on, the first request came not from Canada, but from Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman in Illinois. 

The founder of the Hinda Institute (formerly known as the Jewish Prisoners’ Assistance Foundation), Rabbi Scheiman’s organization aids families of Jews incarcerated, arranges visitation for incarcerated Jews in Illinois jails and helps with their re-entry process once they are released. He jumped at the opportunity to receive the machzorim. “We estimate there are up to 150 Jews incarcerated in the state of Illinois and these High Holiday prayer books are so important,” he reflected. “For Jewish inmates, Rosh Hashanah is a time in their life when they’re very open and repenting for mistakes they’ve made in their lives. The prayer books are an extremely generous contribution.”

Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman

In general, Jewish prisoners are very marginalized within Jewish communities, sometimes even demonized, Rabbi Scheiman says. “It’s even worse than being forgotten – they and their families are sometimes shunned by the community.” He works closely with the Chabad-affiliated Aleph Institute, an American organization founded in 1983 and one that has branches in many different states. One of its missions is to provide professional services to nearly 4,000 Jewish men and women in U.S. federal and state prisons and their approximately 25,000 spouses, children and parents left behind.

No such organization exists in Canada, though various rabbis in different parts of the country carry out initiatives on their own. Rabbi Baitelman visits the roughly six to 12 Jewish inmates in Metro Vancouver jails from time to time, and tries to send Purim packages to them on Purim. In Vancouver, semi-retired Jewish Renewal Rabbi Dina-Hasida Mercy has served as the Jewish chaplain to Pacific region federal prisons since 2012 and takes weekly excursions into B.C.’s Fraser Valley, where there are 10 federal prisons, to meet with the small number of Jewish inmates there and any others who want to talk to her. “There are definitely people in my group that are not halachically Jewish,” she says.

A basic need they all share is for a kind, listening ear, one that won’t judge them and report on them, she says. She’s also committed to practical projects, including the delivery of donated prayer books and general Jewish literature into the federal institutions. As a woman visiting men in jail, Rabbi Mercy says she’s never felt physically threatened. 

“The guys tend to be fairly protective of their chaplains,” she says. “In many ways the prisons are far safer than the city streets, because the inmates have been called to task for their offences and are monitored, whereas out in the community, you have people who might still be in their crime cycle.”

There isn’t enough support and understanding for inmates in the Jewish community and the wider community in general, she laments. “It’s a societal perception that bad guys are put away and should stay away, but these people need to find jobs and take a place in the community when they come out. Many have just committed incredibly stupid mistakes in judgment with terrible consequences, but they need our help to reintegrate into community.” 

What’s needed, she says, is a halfway house based on Jewish values, a place that might offer a job bank, educational opportunities and perhaps even a small business where they can get work experience. “Inmates need a way to regain their self-sufficiency. They come out of prison with $80, which is barely enough to get you from the Fraser Valley into Vancouver. As a society, we need to work on our compassion for people who want to rebuild their lives, and yes, it means doing things that are not comfortable for us.” 

Rabbi Menachem Matusof, head of Chabad in Alberta, has visited Jewish inmates in Alberta jails for the past 27 years. He estimates there’s six to 12 incarcerated Jews in his province at any given time and finds funding a challenge. “The visitations take time and the travel expenses mount, books for inmates cost money and the process of getting security clearance each year is demanding,” he says. 

Rabbi Menachem Matusof

Sometimes, there are conflicts. One year he brought a mobile sukkah to the Jewish women’s jail in Calgary, where an inmate was incarcerated for murder. In an old newspaper interview, Rabbi Matusof was asked why he would bother doing this for a murderer. “Murdering is a much bigger issue than sukkah and lulav,” he was told. “My response was this: because someone committed a crime one time, this means he or she should not do another mitzvah? What does one have to do with another? The murder was being handled by the courts. Meanwhile, this is still a Jewish individual who needs help, and we’re here to help them at whichever level they need.”

He describes most of the Jewish inmates he visits as “sweet, wonderful people who unfortunately got caught in bad situations. It’s not our place to judge,” he says. “We need to reach out and help people wherever they are.”

There are also schemers, and Rabbi Matusof gets lots of requests from non-Jewish inmates who want to speak with him about possible conversions to Judaism. His response is always to wait until they are released from jail, “but once they’re out, they no longer have interest!” Other inmates claim they are Jewish and want kosher meals. “We talk to them and find out immediately if they’re telling the truth,” he says. “Most of the time, I’m not fooled.”