Yom Kippur 2017

For the first time in the Aleph’s Institute 36-year history arranging visits and holiday services for Jews in U.S. prisons, there was a minyan for Yom Kippur in a high security Arizona prison. “It took almost two days before yom tov going back and forth with the prison officials to finalize the logistics and details,” said Rabbi Mendel Inglis, Aleph’s Visitation Coordinator, “and then there were the last minute flights for the Rabbis, and an RV to organize.” 

Early Friday morning, erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Menachem Schmukler, who had become engaged just two days before, and Rabbi Sholom Posner flew from New York to Phoenix and drove two and a half hours to Tucson, where they picked up a chartered RV that had to be parked at a prison training ground a good half hour’s walk in 96 degree heat from the prison.

Meanwhile, Chabad of Arizona Shliach Rabbi Yossi Shemtov jumped on board to organize Machzorim and a Sefer Torah, as well as kosher pre-and-post yom tov meals for the visiting Rabbis who had to arrive early for their identities to be checked and their name badges printed so they could pass through the electronic doors in advance of Shabbos yom tov. 

Precious minutes ticked by as the rabbis assured the guards that prior permission had been granted for them to wear white shirts (which are not normally allowed at the United States Penitentiary, so that visitors shouldn’t blend in), and hats. And even while prior permission had been confirmed, it was touch and go for them to bring in the Sefer Torah and Machzorim, an issue resolved only through the rabbis’ tact and diplomacy and their steadfast Jewish purpose.

The rabbis then discovered that even though services had been coordinated to begin at 6PM, worshippers of other faiths had occupied the chapel, so the minyan began in the hallway and moved into the chapel as the others filed out. 

Once inside the chapel, a tangible air of solemnity permeated the room. Several men were moved to tears, filled with awe at the chance to formally pray with a minyan and be lead in prayer by the two rabbis who chanted the Kol Nidre declaration with its meaningful melodic phrases, “By the authority of the Court on High and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.” 

For the next morning’s Shacharit service, the Rabbis were required to arrive by 7:30AM but again encountered a double shift that kept them waiting, and only seven of the previous night’s eight men showed up. How would they make up the minyan?

Typically, in high security prisons, the prisoners are counted every morning at 10AM, for which all the men have to be locked up in their cells. Across the country, Aleph sends out memos to coordinate “out-counts” with Federal prisons to ensure that services are not interrupted and that the men can be excluded from the count. Except, not all of the guards get the memo, and in this instance, in the middle of davening, the guard on duty insisted that the seven men return to their cells.

 After they’d been counted, however, the men returned full of excitement with big happy smiles and joyful exclamations; on their way back they had met another Jew and invited him along. For the rest of Yom Kippur, the eight prisoners and the two rabbis prayed together in a minyan, complete with Torah reading, mincha, neilah and shofar. Indeed, if not for the Hashgacha Protis (Divine Providence), with Hashem Himself counting every Jew, none of it would have been possible.  

In a conversation with some parents who have a son that participated in this historic minyan, the outpouring of gratitude and joy they said they heard in their son’s voice when they spoke to him after yom tov, brought home how much these opportunities mean to so many people. “We were so happy,” Michael’s* father said, “it’s hard to believe that people will go to so much trouble for a few lone Jews locked behind bars.” Not to mention the impact of this extraordinary davening that surely resonates with Hashem on high, may He answer all of our prayers for a good, sweet year.

Right after yom tov, one of the men sent the following message of appreciation: “Let me express my deepest gratitude to those who arranged for Rabbis Menachem and Shalom, to come to USP-Tucson to conduct Yom Kippur services. Most of the men I spoke to after services say they too were transported to another realm. JK* was nearly in tears back on the unit, he was so moved. For many of us it was our first aliyah to read Torah–what a holy day it was. As my friend called it, gavaldic! There is such a difference from praying like that in a group—with a minyan—and praying alone in a cell with a toilet and a celly in and out. The service really inspired the Jewish community here—put some gas in the tank and watered the thirsty. Now that we’ve had a small taste we hope to see more of the same again sometime soon.”

He concluded the letter with the following: “With that said, let me tie the request for my friend in with the above, because he was present at the service. He was so thankful for the service–he was the first to point out how huge the event was and that it likely cost a good bit of gelt. He has urged us all to send any tzadakah we can spare. I don’t have a lot, so he agreed to give on my behalf and dedicated $50.00 “for the USP-TUCSON Yom Kippur service 5778”. This is probably a drop in the bucket for what it cost to make that service happen, but at our prison wages its like $5,000.00 in free-world earnings. My kitchen pay is around $17.00 a month.”

*Name changed for privacy.