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March 06, 2014 - Image 10

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2014-03-06

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Jews Behind Bars from page 8

congregant," said Rabbi Yarden Blumstein,
director of the Friendship House, a pro-
gram of Friendship Circle of Michigan that
provides support to Jewish individuals and
families struggling with alcoholism, addic-
tion and other isolating life crises.
Aviva Gordon of Oak Park is an
Orthodox woman who serves as a prison
chaplain for women at
the Oakland County
Jail. She visits the jail
every Friday, meeting
new inmates and con-
ducting study sessions
and prayer groups.
When possible, she
brings items the pris-
Aviva Gordon
oners have requested,
such as religious books.
"I am told these
reading materials make their way around
the pods, and often the [non-Jewish]
inmates will be surprised and saddened to
hear how Jews are treated poorly, in past
and present context" said Gordon, a for-
mer sales and marketing professional who
is also a volunteer divorce mediator and
part-time day schoolteacher.
Her goal is to help ease the burden of
incarceration through spiritual means,
although she says many of the women
who seek her out are not necessarily reli-
gious in their outside lives.
"While in jail," she said, "something
tugs at their Jewish core and they reach
out for Jewish camaraderie"

Anti-Semitism In Prison
One of the challenges Jewish prisoners
face is anti-Semitism from other prisoners
as well as guards. Declaring one's Judaism
by requesting kosher food or attending
religious services leaves prisoners open to
verbal attacks or worse.
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, director of the
Chabad House of Greater Downtown
Detroit and former
Friendship House
director, described a
Jewish prisoner who
observed the rules
of kashrut at home
but kept his Judaism
under wraps in prison,
eschewing kosher
Rabbi Pinson
food and avoiding ser-
vices or other religious
"He didn't want to deal with the per-
ception of the other prisoners and staff'
Pinson said.
Sherman took a different approach; he
literally flaunted his Judaism via promi-
nent tattoos of the Israeli flag and his
mother's Hebrew name.
"I figured if they could wear their swas-
tikas and other hate stuff, then I can fly
my colors" he said, adding there was some
name-calling but no physical retaliation.
"It was kind of like daring them to do

something, but they never did"
The guards were another story, accord-
ing to Sherman. Some would find reasons
to conduct a "shakedown" entering a
prisoner's cell and searching through his
belongings, often causing damage to what-
ever religious items were found.
"They [the guards] couldn't openly
make remarks, so they stomped on yar-
mulkahs and tore pages out of prayer
books" Sherman said. "It's easy to know if
someone doesn't like you and why"
Sherman has worked hard to overcome
the negative effects of incarceration,
describing prison as an "upside-down
"You're a grown man sitting in your cell,
and you hear a song or you smell a smell.
You remember something you used to do
with your daughter, and you're gone —
you've lost it" he said, "but you can't cry or
show emotion. For those of us who grew
up knowing what a family is like, it weighs
on you"
Gordon said the women she visits in
the Oakland County Jail complain of anti-
Semitism, including proselytizing from
other sects and snide remarks about the
amount of money some of the Jewish
inmates spend at the commissary. They
are also expected to answer questions
from gentile prisoners about various
aspects of Judaism.
"To an extent, these women have
become Jewish ambassadors, whether
they like it or not. The non-Jewish women
feel that those eating kosher food have all
the Jewish answers" Gordon said.

Kosher Issues

The availability of kosher food in prisons
has become an issue fraught with contro-
versy and litigation in Michigan and other
parts of the country.
Federal lawsuits have been filed over
the unavailability of kosher prisons meals
in various states, including Michigan,
Texas and Florida, where an Orthodox
inmate and the U.S. Department of Justice
filed parallel suits that resulted in a court
order requiring Florida prisons to provide
kosher meals.
Prison officials in Florida and elsewhere
express concern about the high cost of
kosher food, which is at least four times
greater. While the percentage of prison-
ers who are actually Jewish is less than
2 percent of the total population, many
non-Jewish inmates request kosher meals
because the food is believed to be higher
quality than standard prison fare, driving
the costs up even higher.
In Michigan, a new prison meal pro-
gram was introduced last fall, including a
policy that provides vegan meals to Jews,
Muslims and other religious minorities
with special dietary needs. The "one-size-
fits-all" vegan meals have elicited com-
plaints from advocates for Muslim as well
as Jewish prisoners.

Jews Behind Bars on page 12

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