Clarifying our mission

by Chaplain Gary Friedman

Over the past year, JPSI has received some 5,000 letters from non-Jewish prisoners. Some are from so-called “Messianics” or “Hebrew Israelites,” the “self-proclaimed,” and others who mistakenly believe that they are Jewish. Regular requests are received for “Old Testament” study materials from Christians, many writers are seeking pen pals–predominately of the opposite sex. A few of these letters come from other religious minorities who are experiencing obstruction of their religious practices–often remarkably similar to what Jews commonly encounter in prison. Except for this last category, most of these letters go unanswered and are simply passed on to our regional coordinators for their information.

Amongst the letters that arrive from bona fide Jews, we are frequently asked to provide financial aid, legal assistance, post-release housing, employment and other services that are either beyond JPSI’s scope or not a direct organization offering. As with most of the mail that arrives at JPSI headquarters, these too are directed to our regional coordinators for appropriate action.

Although JPSI’s Mission Statement (appearing under “About” on the above menu) is quite straightforward, it has become apparent that there is a need for us to clarify a few items:

What We Do: First and foremost, JPSI is a Jewish chaplaincy organization that strives to fulfill the Talmudic obligation of all Jews being responsible for each other, along with other religious mandates of our faith. We are here to insure that Jewish prisoners are permitted to practice their faith by providing the advocacy and religious materials to further that goal. Beyond that, we offer a wide range of support services, but our funding criteria and meager resources limit us to assisting Jewish prisoners and their families only. We strive, in a pluralist manner, to assist those who are Jewish, without regard for their existing levels of religious observance–or non-religious observance, as the case may be. Of course, it is our hope that through various programs we offer, Jewish prisoners and their families will become more connected with the greater Jewish community.

What We Don’t Do: Unlike most non-Jewish chaplaincy programs, we are not on a proselytizing bent. In other words, we are not looking to convert anybody to Judaism and we do not tolerate those groups who target vulnerable Jewish prisoners for conversion to their faiths. We neither condone the crimes that have been committed by Jewish prisoners nor do we condemn them for their transgressions. We do not automatically take the side of Jewish prisoners in their claims against corrections officials, as such claims must be carefully investigated before appropriate action is then taken.

So, Who Is Jewish? Jewish religious law (Halachah), as further defined by the various branches of our faith, clearly states that a Jew is one who has either been born Jewish or has been properly converted. One cannot become a Jew by simply declaring that he/she is Jewish, or by beginning to practice the Jewish faith. Nor can one become a Jew while simultaneously practicing another faith. There is no such thing as a “Jewish-Wiccan,” a “Jewish-Bahai,” etc. Conversion requires a lengthy, serious period of study and involvement in the Jewish community that culminates in approval by a rabbinic court (Bais Din) and certain religious rituals. Furthermore, it is extremely rare for a properly constituted Bais Din to approve conversion for somebody who is still incarcerated.

JPSI’s Pen Pal Program: Consistent with our mission, we will only provide Jewish pen pals for Jewish prisoners. For very understandable security reasons, our program rules also stipulate linking men with men and women with women only. This program is designed to provide Jewish prisoners with a connection to the free-world Jewish community. It is not a dating service.

Financial/Legal Assistance: Our mission and resources preclude us from directly providing either financial or legal assistance. We do, however, act as advocates for Jewish prisoners and their families in dealing with other agencies who might be able to provide such services. We are often asked to provide screening services for these agencies and we do frequently make referrals to a variety of agencies, particularly for family and post-release assistance (see below).

Family Assistance: We are well aware that when a Jew goes to prison, his/her family is also “doing the time.” More often than not, it is the breadwinner who is incarcerated and those family members who are left behind are usually financially devastated by the time that the legal process has run its course. Although much of the Jewish community would prefer to believe that Jews do not go to prison and consequently tend to stigmatize innocent family members of prisoners, JPSI coordinators do whatever they can to neutralize these attitudes and to insure that families are able to obtain assistance from Jewish agencies. Usually, available assistance ranges from emergency housing to loans or financial grants to Jewish day school and summer camp scholarships for children. We cannot guarantee that these services will always be forthcoming in all areas, but we can certainly help to make them happen.

Post-Release Assistance: This is the one area that JPSI has found it can do the most good in preventing Jews from re-offending or returning to prison due to circumstances beyond their control. Consequently, we are working toward establishing a network of Jewish-operated post-release housing/resource center facilities. In the meantime, our coordinators actively assist ex-offenders in obtaining housing, employment, financial assistance, etc. from Jewish and secular social service agencies and individual supporters in the Jewish community.

What We Want From You: To corrections officials, we ask that you treat Jewish prisoners fairly and consistent with the treatment of other prisoners in your care. To Jewish prisoners, we ask that you take responsibility for your own actions and that you be honest with us. To our dedicated staff and volunteers, we ask that you do the best you can under what are usually difficult circumstances. To the Jewish community, we ask that you support us in fulfilling our obligations to our incarcerated brethren and their families.

Of course, we would prefer that JPSI did not have to exist in the first place. In a perfect world, there would be no need for prisons and no need for our services. G-d willing, that world will arrive with the coming of Moshiach and all Jewish prisoners will be subsequently redeemed.

Editor’s Note: Chaplain Friedman welcomes your comments or questions. Please email them to: garyfriedman@msn.com.