by Shiela Steinman Wallace, Editor
On Saturday, July 20, at 1 p.m., a small group of men gathered in the chapel of the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. There, with guidance from Anthony Minstein from Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, three of the inmates – James Gill, Jack Hubbard and James Peters – led the Shabbat Torah Service as b’nai mitzvah.
Each of the three helped lead the service, reading prayers in Hebrew and English. Each was honored with an aliyah; each read his own section of this week’s Parasha; and each gave a three-minute speech explaining the relevance of what he read – much as is expected of a traditional bar mitzvah candidate.
This service was the next step in a journey Minstein began two years ago. For 10 years, he taught Sunday School at The Temple, and then he taught at the High School of Jewish Studies. When that came to an end, he looked for another meaningful volunteer project and a request from Jewish men at the Kentucky State Reformatory came to his attention.
After completing the prison’s mandatory training classes, Minstein began his volunteering by conducting Friday evening services, and when the High Holidays rolled around, he led those as well.
Over time, he acquired prayer books and a small Torah from Israel for the men, and for the High Holidays, Carol Heideman knit plain white kipot for the inmates. One of the inmates made a small ark for the scroll and Minstein topped it with a small battery-powered light to represent the ner tamid.
Who are these men and what did they do? Minstein doesn’t ask. It is enough that they come each week to study, pray and practice their Judaism. The Kentucky State Reformatory, located in LaGrange, KY, has the state’s second largest inmate population with a 2005-bed capacity. Its mission is true reform and is dedicated to preparing inmates to return to society by mending minds, bodies and spirit.
The volunteers who work with the inmates “are there to be role models,” Minstein said, “to provide a light of guidance to men, who in many cases, made bad decisions, and to give them the tools to make good decisions.”
Over time, Minstein continued, “our services began to include Torah study and using Torah as a backbone of guidance on appropriate living. … Almost every Torah story refers to correct decisions, the rules, customs and law for living as a society.”
As their study progressed, Minstein observed the high personal investment in Judaism from the inmates, so the next logical step seemed to be a bar mitzvah ceremony. “The bar mitzvah service represents the Jewish person proclaiming in front of God and their community, I am now an adult, responsible for my actions.”
When the three men decided to participate in the service, Minstein chose July 20 as the date because the Torah portion, V’etchanan, includes the restatement of the 10 Commandments.
While the service will include all the normal parts of a Shabbat morning Reform Torah service, “for these men,” Minstein said, “there is no party, no reception, no dance and no presents. It is each man representing in front of God his devotion to Judaism and his devotion to the lessons of Torah.”
Well, Minstein backtracked, there really will be presents. “I’ve arranged with the rabbis at The Temple to provide each man participating [in the service with] a tallit. The tallit is representative of devotion to God and J, and these men, of their own free will, are demonstrating that. They understand the obligation of the wearing of tallit, an obligation to live as righteous men; that obligation is not to me or the rabbis, but to God.”
Holding the service presented a number of challenges, and each step Minstein took had to be approved by the prison authorities. “I had originally wanted to have them present a Havdallah service,” Minstein said, “but the prison regulations restrict the use of candles, incense burners and wine. Also, because of timing in chapel, the only time available to us is 1-3 in the afternoon.”
“None of the men know Hebrew,” he continued, and “because it is a prison, I’m restricted to the amount of learning aids I can use. So, I created a series of CDs for them that they could play over and over again.”
Learning the Torah portions was also an obstacle. In addition to the men’s limited knowledge of Hebrew, the Torah scroll they use is only 18 inches tall, and it is very hard to read. To help the men with this task, Minstein asked Rabbi David Ariel-Joel of The Temple to prepare CDs with their portions.
“We have tacked on b’nai mitzvah preparation to our weekly Shabbat services,” Minstein says. “Practicing our Hebrew, practicing the service, undressing and dressing the Torah as well as reading the Torah. The men have invested a great deal of time and energy in this activity.”
The small congregation has also had their struggles in the past with prison authorities. “Kentucky is not a very Jewish state,” he said. In past years, the Department of Corrections had to defend against legal suits to allow freedom of worship. The positive result today is an appreciation by the current administration serving the diverse needs of the population. “Kosher food is prepared in the kitchen, and I have personally advised chaplains from other institutions on appropriate practices on kashrut and other traditions,” Minstein says.
“We have had very good support from the prison authorities including Chaplain Art Turner and the Wardens. This really does reflect the Bureau of Prisons support for and commitment to their mission of reform.” Some of the past suits were brought by Jewish inmates.
“Our congregation was discussing how we, as a group, could practice tikkun olam [making the world a better place].
We had discussed a range of possible volunteer activities including donations from the men’s personal accounts (they earn $0.82 a day from prison jobs) to services performed on behalf of hospice and physically handicapped inmates.
To build positive relations for our congregation, he continued, “I counseled the men to present ourselves in a positive light by holding a Torah service and inviting the prison staff along with the community, thereby making a very positive statement.”
Minstein said his work with the inmates means a great deal to them because “they feel the community cares about them. They’re in prison, but that doesn’t mean they have no value. They pay their debts to society and should be open to return to society.”
Minstein plans to do another similar service in the fall and hopes members of the community will be able to come to the prison and participate, although, he noted, people must get prior approval before visiting.
“Reaching out to and providing spiritual assistance to the unserved is a mitzvah,” Minstein said, “and each week I pray that what we study will help the men lead righteous lives. That, to me, is the essence of tikkun olam.”