When Rabbi Bentzion Friedman received a call recently from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, he assumed it concerned his monthly visits to the maximum-security facility. The director of the Lubavitch Torah Learning Center in Overland Park Kansas, Rabbi Friedman has also been Leavenworth’s Jewish chaplain for the past twenty years and is the advisory rabbi for the Kansas State prison system.
This call however, was for a completely new project. President Bush, in one of his first official acts, had signed legislation for a Faith Based and Community Initiatives Program designed to support existing religious and social welfare organizations. One of the issues addressed was prisoner rehabilitation through the teaching of an extensive ‘life connections’ spiritual development program.
Rabbi Friedman was asked to serve as the chaplain/teacher for the Jewish prisoners in Leavenworth, which is one of only four prisons nationwide selected to participate in the pilot program.
“I was delighted to accept the position” said Friedman “because my previous interaction with the Jewish inmates was restricted to one hour, once a month and it always left them wanting more.”
The current schedule mandates that he meet with his students twice a week for three-hour sessions. The curriculum is a serious one and inmates must sign an agreement to attend the classes regularly, be responsible for completing assignments and keep all personal class discussion confidential.
The teachers have the freedom of infusing their lessons with the beliefs and traditions of their religion, and Friedman has structured what he only half jokingly calls “a jailhouse yeshiva.” Along with the mandatory courses on responsibility, parenting, anger management etc., Friedman includes a healthy dose of Yiddishkeit to his small group of Jewish students.
He teaches lessons in Chumash, Kabballah, Holiday rituals and “Hilchot Teshuvah”, the classic text of repentance written by Maimonides, which is almost tailor-made for Jewish inmates.
Rabbi Friedman encourages them to put on tefillin daily and leads them in the Mincha prayers. He recorded a tape of all the songs in the service and gave it to his students to practice along with their Hebrew reading. During prayers, the hallways now resound with the classic melody of “Olaynu,” albeit, in decidedly non orthodox accents.
During the recent holiday of Sukkot, the classes were held in the sukkah which was put up in Leavenworth and which was beautifully decorated by the Jewish inmates.
Friedman finds that this more intense and sustained interaction with the inmates has created a bond between them. He is not only a chaplain and teacher but a friend, motivator, therapist and sounding board. “Because these men are getting seriously involved with their Judaism” says Friedman, “they will hopefully take their roles as husbands, fathers and citizens seriously as well.”
Although the program is in its infancy, Friedman has seen constructive results and has received overwhelmingly positive feedback. He maintains that his students are already feeling and acting differently, even giving up some of their anger and confrontational behaviors.
Friedman cites the case of one of his students who told him about a potential situation that had ended peacefully. “I was working in the kitchen, when this guy whom I really can’t stand, came in looking for food. I actually helped him and gave him something to eat, because you taught us that it’s the right thing to do.”
The right thing to do is not necessarily the mantra of prison inmates. However, Friedman feels that teaching morality based on religious beliefs can effect change.
“If you understand what goes on in a maximum security unit, you see that religion itself is an excuse for violence” he says. “If we can teach all of the religions just to tolerate each other, it would be a huge step towards making our prison system safer and saner for all.”
That the lessons are taking root was further evidenced by a letter with the unmistakable return address of Leavenworth that was recently received at Rabbi Friedman’s synagogue. The handwritten note read: “This is tithes for the month of Tishrei and also for Tzedaka. I was so touched by the teaching of your rabbi that I decided even now to send this.”
Enclosed was a U.S. government check, drawn on the inmate’s account, for $18.00. “That’s a lot of money for someone who earns $1.50 an hour” says Friedman “and it is proof positive that the pintele Yid, the holy spark within every Jew, can never be extinguished, no matter how low he may have fallen or how dark his prison.”