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Find It All In
The Jewish News
Prisons Try To Snuff
Lights Of Freedom
DAVID ZEMAN STAFF WRITER
erhaps fearing some in-
mates might burn the can-
dle at both ends, the
Michigan Department of
Corrections quietly enacted a ban
early last month on using real can-
dles during prison Chanukah ser-
But the candle ban sparked a
brushfire of protest from Jewish
inmate advocacy groups, leading
to a quick reversal only days be-
fore Chanukah began.
"It was a united effort by the
Jewish community, with all these
groups hitting the Department of
Corrections at once," crowed Rab-
bi Herschel Fireman of Oak Park,
a volunteer prison chaplain who
helped lead the protest.
The controversy, which smol-
dered and was then extinguished
within days, underscores the ten-
sion that sometimes arises be-
tween the right of prisoners to
freely practice religion and the in-
terest of corrections officials in
keeping prison grounds free of
weapons and contraband.
According to Rabbi Finman, the
dispute stemmed from the prac-
tice of some wardens in the state'
of severely restricting or even ban-
ning Chanukah celebrations.
As a result, Rabbi Finman and
other chaplains asked corrections
officials to enact a single,
statewide policy regarding
What they got was a memo-
randum, dated Dec. 7, allowing
Chanukah services but expressly
forbidding candles and open
flames. "The candles on the meno-
rah must be electric or battery
powered," the decree said. An ac-
companying letter cited "fire-safe-
ty regulations" as the reason.
"Having a bunch of prisoners
around open flames struck Deputy
Director (Dan) Bolden as pretty
dangerous," prison spokesperson
Gail Light explained.
But that angered a group of
Jewish prison advocacy groups
with ties to the Lubavitch move-
On Dec. 14, three days before
the start of Chanukah, a Florida-
based group known as the Aleph
Institute faxed a letter to prison
officials protesting the policy.
That same day, the Lubavitch
Foundation in Farmington Hills
faxed its own protests to Gov.
John Engler asking him to inter-
cede. The American Jewish Con-
gress and the American Jewish
Committee were also involved,
said Aleph Director Isaac
One day later, the candle ban
was repealed, at least for now.
Prison officials announced can-
dles could be used during
Chanukah, but only by rabbis or
other civilians leading the service.
"Candles must not be in the pos-
session of prisoners at any time,"
the decree said.
The turnabout was so swift,
G- 017. Engler did not have time to
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a volun-
teer prison chaplain who is with
the Lubavitch Foundation, said
the dispute is part of a broader ef-
fort by corrections officials to
clamp down on inmates' rights.
His colleague, Rabbi Yitzchak
Kagan, added that prisons in oth-
er states routinely allow "open
flame" candles during Chanukah.
Mr. Jaroslawicz, of the Aleph
Institute, said ignorance of Jew-
ish tradition was probably to
"In many prisons," he said,
"there are 500 white supremacists
on one side, 500 black Muslims on
the other, and five Jews caught in
Ms. Light, of the Michigan cor-
rections department, said religious
disputes crop up fairly frequently.
In one facility in northern Michi-
gan, officials permitted a sweat
lodge to be installed after lobbying
by Native American prisoners.
Rarely do such controversies
involve Jewish inmates. There are
only 51 people who identify them-
selves as Jews among the state's
Of course, some religious com-
plaints are taken more seriously
than others. Prisoners have been
known to use religious conviction
as a pretext for receiving special
privileges, Ms. Light said. It is up
to prison officials to separate the
pious from the troublemakers.
She recalled one group of in-
mates who declared that its reli-
gion required them to eat sirloin
steak and drink Harvey's Bristol
Cream sherry. "We had some
problems with that," she noted.
Karen Spector and Maxine Weinberg have opened Salon Sydney
in Birmingham. A Kudos and Memos announcement on Dec. 29
incorrectly stated that Ms. Weinberg was formerly with Travel
Max. She remains with Travel Max.