Twenty four University of Maryland students are going to spend Yom Kippur in federal prison.
No, they are not felons, not bad kids. Far from it. In fact, they will be spending their Day of Atonement away from family just so their fellow Jews, who happen to be prison inmates, can follow the holiday.
Oren Charnoff is going for the second year in a row. “I kept asking myself, ‘How can I be so comfortable being next to a murderer?’ We were so comfortable. It was amazing,” said the rising senior.
Thanks to Maryland Hillel and the Florida-based Aleph Institute, these young adults are experiencing the true meaning of repentance as they spend their Yom Kippur with prisoners who are mulling over their crimes and life in general.
“I can’t imagine a more meaningful place to be for Yom Kippur,” said Noah Stein, who also is a repeat participant.
The students, in groups of five or six, are sent to a prison where they set up a room and conduct full holiday services for Jewish inmates.
Charnoff, who lives in Potomac, said it was strange not being with his family for the holiday, but it turned out to be an incredibly worthwhile experience as he helped lead prayer and discussion with 20 inmates.
“Who better to tell me what it’s like to be judged? They are judged in court. They know exactly what it feels like,” the 22-year-old economics and Jewish Studies major said.
“We provided a Jewish perspective — that how you repent matters, even if it doesn’t in a court of law” where a judge decides a sentence based on the crime and not the degree of repentance, Charnoff said.
Still, basically Yom Kippur “is your last chance to speak to the judge before your sentence is in,” he said, adding that “makes the Day of Judgement so real for us, and we made it so real for them.”
Early into the service, the students gave the prisoners the choice of standing silently to pray during the Amidah or moving to the back of the room and joining a discussion. “All but one prisoner went to the group discussion, but later, in the afternoon, when given the same choice, every single prisoner elected to pray in front.”
Charnoff said it was a very moving experience for him. “It is so amazing. It is such a different way to spend the holiday. The prisoners love that they are being empowered.”
Without nearby hotels, the students stay in a rented recreational vehicle, leaving the air conditioning on, and preserving the food they will share with the prisoners as the holiday draws to a close.
“We set up the room like a synagogue as much as we could. We all wore suits. That showed the guys we respected them,” Charnoff said, adding that the inmates all were clad in prison garb.
The prisoners spoke openly, and the students learned that these men who cared about their religion were guilty of fraud, drug and firearms violations and murder.
“It was incredibly meaningful, just seeing the other side. I thought it was really powerful how much a role religion plays in these men’s lives,” said Stein, a 22-year-old psychology and Jewish Studies major. “These men were so receptive, and it kind of increased during the day.”
Stein, of Atlanta, Ga., said the experience changed his perspective. “What I found were all these men who felt genuine remorse, who appeared to be changing, who still had a moral code. They were the first to admit they had done something wrong in their lives.”
Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director at the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Center at the University of Maryland Hillel, helped the students with this project.
“This is an important value” the students are learning, he said. “No one is condoning these prisoners’ behavior,” but still, they should be able to pray.
“Our students are learning so much. Here they are, sleeping in an RV, away from their family, fasting,” Israel said.
Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah also has helped guide the students. “I think it’s amazing that young kids, college kids, are thinking beyond themselves and their own needs on Yom Kippur,” he said. “I am very inspired by what these students are doing.”
His synagogue is lending the students four Torahs. “We have many Torahs. They all don’t need to be sitting in the Ark. It’s much more effective to be used this way,” he said.
“They are prisoners, but their spiritual needs need to be addressed,” he explained.
Other synagogues, including Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue and Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring, are helping out. Shalom Kosher is providing prefast and break-fast food for the students at a discount.
Rabbi Yossi Stern, who oversees education and visitation programs with the Aleph Institute, has been helping Jews lead services in prisons for years, but up until recently, the leaders were rabbinical students. He said the intent of the program is to assist any Jew “in a limited environment” like prison or the military, to fulfill the commandments.
“We want them to be part of a service, to hear the shofar. We make sure that happens,” Stern said, adding that his institute is involved during the whole year, providing menorahs at Chanukah and important foods and services at other holidays.
“We don’t force anybody to do anything. We provide,” he said. “This is a lifeline for them,” he said of the roughly 5,000 Jews in prison today. Actually, Stern said, the number is higher since not all Jews in prison identify themselves as Jewish.
The visits are also very important for the volunteers, Stern stressed, noting that while people talk of repeat offenders in a very negative way, he is happy to report “most of my volunteers are repeat offenders.”
This High Holiday will be the second year that college students have participated, and he hopes to build on their numbers and the number of prisons they visit, for many years to come.
That is also the goal of Charnoff and Stein, who are speaking with other colleges to try and get them on board. This year, the University of Pennsylvania and Yeshiva University in New York also are participating.
Stein’s involvement convinced him to start a new group, called Justice for Juveniles. The college students visit a juvenile prison weekly, where the prisoners are mostly from D.C. and none of them are Jewish.
They go for 90 minutes each time and teach a lesson involving ethics and morals. “We have real discussions with them. We tell them that education is important, that college is doable. Scholarships are out there.” Stein said the real message is “your life is not done. You can still get it together.”