Monday, April 2, 2007

Preparing Jewish inmates for Passover

David Briggs of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes of local rabbis visiting prisons, noting the rarity of Jewish detention ministers:

"We're from a community that would prefer to believe its people don't get in trouble," said Gary Friedman, chairman of the Seattle-based Jewish Prisoner Services International. "We're the least popular cause in Judaism."

But for a small yet growing number of Jewish leaders involved in prison ministry here, caring for inmates is more than an imperative of their faith. It is a contemporary window into an ancient promise that God has the power to transcend temporal prisons.

After a year of weekly visits to 10 inmates at Albion State Prison in western Pennsylvania, Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum said he will never look at Passover the same way.

"This year, I can relate to being a slave, to being in bondage," said Scheinbaum of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights.

They find the work a challenge:

Life as a prison chaplain is not easy. Rabbis like Scheinbaum and Rabbi
Yossi Marozov of The Friendship Circle in Beachwood must not only push fear out
of their minds but also travel a great distance at little or no pay to visit
Jewish prisoners.

And all to serve relatively few inmates, a major reason prison ministry
is such a low priority.
Nationally, Friedman estimates that 12,000 to 15,000
Jews are incarcerated. Actual numbers are difficult to come by, in part because
some prisoners won't identify themselves for fear of discrimination, persecution
or of being labeled different.

In the Ohio correctional system, 78 of the approximately 49,000 prisoners
have identified themselves as Jewish, said the Rev. Gary Sims, religious service
administrator for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Sims said the number of Jewish chaplains is slowly increasing, but he said
more are needed, along with help for prisoners to adjust to life on the outside.

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