Jewish Prison Outreach volunteers hope concert will inspire action


Volunteers and committee members of Jewish Prison Outreach hope that its recent benefit concert will lead to both greater community awareness of the issues of Jews in prison and more action to provide support to the prisoners and their families.

Over 80 people attended the recent Jewish Prison Outreach Concert at Central Reform Congregation, which was sponsored by Neve Shalom, CRC and B’nai Amoona Congregation, which featured performances by Rabbi James Stone Goodman and his conventicle of intentional musicians, with vocalist Miryam Raziel, and the performance piece “Ashamed of My Past.”

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“We were very pleased with both the quality of the concert and the important performed words and statements by Rabbi James Goodman, who has been very supportive of our efforts,” said Marsha Koski, an active member of the steering committee for Jewish Prison Outreach, now in its third year of activities focusing attention and seeking greater support for the needs of Jewish prisoners and their families.

Koski, who has a daughter who has been incarcerated, said, “Jewish Prison Outreach seeks to provide emotional support, social services, and closer links to the Jewish community. The group currently sends rabbinic messages, holiday information, calendars, chumashim (Hebrew Bibles), siddurim (prayerbooks) and tallits and kippot to many prisoners.”

“We have a terrific and very dedicated committee and feel we are building momentum for more meaningful community action to help meet the needs of Jewish prisoners,” Koski added.

“Among the ongoing and obvious needs are such things as rabbinical visits, bibles and prayerbooks, kippot (yarmulkes) and tallesim. But ideally, there should be a full-time community rabbic pastor/counselor who would focus on issues related to Jews in prison, alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence and other issues which lead to incarceration. An ongoing presence of a rabbinic counselor and pastor, working with our committee and other groups and agencies could also hopefully prevent or deal with situations that typically lead to imprisonment. We are very encouraged by both the enthusiasm shown at the concert and the support it demonstrates from the community.”

In his remarks and in some of his performance pieces at the Jewish Prison Outreach Benefit Concert, Rabbi Goodman described his feelings during several visits he has made to Jews in prison in both Missouri and Illinois. “In one visit, I saw one of the cells which seemed to have no air circulating. How could anyone breathe in such a place?” Goodman said.

In another description, Goodman recounted a visit with another prisoner who at first challenged him, “Are you going to be another hypocrite who pretends to care about me?” Goodman replied, “I don’t know any hypocrites who pretend to care about prisoners.” Eventually, the visiting rabbi and the Jewish prisoner were able to “transcend” the barrier which separated them and achieve positive communication.

Rabbi Goodman shared other comments from letters from Jews in prison seeking to connect to their Jewish background, to study the Jewish religion or to find comfort and meaning in Jewish beliefs and practices. “One prisoner said he would like to study and has a long time ahead of him in prison in which to do so.”

Another prisoner sent Rabbi Goodman an appeal to improve himself. “I am seeking a more proper way, a more proper way to live. I was introduced to the Jewish Torah. Could you please send me a Hebrew calendar and add me to your mailing list?”

Yet another wrote, “I am ashamed of my past. I was only 18 when I became incarcerated in Illinois. Illinois prisons are quite different from Missouri prisons; there are more of them, and many of them are quite violent. I am Jewish through life and death. I am truly sorry. I am asking for your guidance. Sincerely, and with Torah Blessings.”

Another prisoner wrote that only one of his parents was Jewish and he sought information on how to become “properly converted,” and asked for Hebrew-English dictionary and a Yiddish-English dictionary so that he could learn Jewish languages. “I have plenty of time. I have 21 years to do it.”

Among other volunteer members of the Jewish Prison Outreach Committee are Louis Albert, executive director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Rabbi Neal Rose of Congegaton B’nai Amoona, Steve Sorkin, executive director of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Neve Shalom, Margie Kessler of the Social Action Committee of Congregation B’nai Amoona, and Aaron Margolis, among others. “We have a very dedicated committee who have helped us when we have struggled, and who are helping to broaden community support for our efforts,” Koski said.

Margie Kessler became involved in Jewish Prison Outreach through the Social Action Committee at Congregation B’nai Amoona. “We became interested in helping Jewish prisoners, but it became clear that a broader approach was needed, and so we linked up with Jewish Prison Outreach, which has recently become a more formal organization.”

Kessler said that JPO “has been able to find 71 identified Jewish prisoners in the Missouri prison system, according to the head chaplain of the Missouri state correctional facilities. We do not have precise figures for Southern Illinois, but have been in touch with a few Jewish prisoners there as well.”

Kessler added, “Rabbi Jim Goodman of Neve Shalom has been tremendously supportive and generous towards the JPO efforts. He and his band donated their services at the benefit concert and 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of his CDs at the concert have gone to support our activities. Rabbi Neal Rose of B’nai Amoona and Rabbi Randy Fleisher of CRC have also been helpful in contacting and visiting prisoners. We also appreciate the fact that Rabbi Yosef Landa of Chabad has reached out to Jewish prisoners and we have been in touch with him.”

“JPO is truly a grass-roots effort, and our volunteers really appreciate the participation of Lou Albert and Steve Sorkin as well as the rabbis in this vital effort,” Kessler said.

Koski and Kessler said that JPO is also working with Project COPE, a coalition of churches and synagogues that train people to assist released prisoners connect positively with society upon their release. “Volunteers are encouraged to dedicate a year of mentoring and keeping in touch with a released prisoner to help them make a positive transition to society,” Kessler said.

Kessler added, “Our Jewish values tell us that we must reach out to those among us who are vulnerable and in need. We also must relate in a positive way to people who may be in different circumstances from most of us, but who could benefit from our support. We still have a long way to go, but we are making exciting progress to deal with this important issue.”

Currently, Jewish Prison Outreach is compiling a study guide for individuals and study groups in prisons, as well as a resource guide for those leaving institutions. JPO has started a partnership with Project Cope to help individuals succeed as they leave prison settings.

For information or to volunteer to join JPO, email [email protected] or call 314-863-4366.