‘Shabbat of Inclusion’ scheduled for March 1


An upcoming event will shine a spotlight on one segment of the Jewish community that often may be overlooked: Jews in prison.

Congregation B’nai Amoona, in conjunction with Jewish Prison Outreach, an organization affiliated with Jewish Family and Children’s Service, will present a “Shabbat of Inclusion” service and panel discussion on Saturday, March 1, examining the issues affecting incarcerated Jews in Missouri.

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The service and program are open to the community, with davening beginning at 9 a.m., and the program at 10:45 a.m. Rabbi Carnie Rose will introduce the subject and Rabbi James Stone Goodman will present an interpretive reading based on letters he has received from incarcerated Jews. Afterward, there will be a discussion by a panel made up of Louis Albert, executive director of JF &CS, Rev. Douglas Worsham, the head chaplain of the Missouri Department of Corrections, and Aaron Margolis of Employment Connection (a group that helps prisoners find work after their release). In addition, the parents of an incarcerated individual are expected to take part.

Margie Kessler, a B’nai Amoona congregant, and one of the individuals who worked to form Jewish Prison Outreach (JPO), said the group began after she read an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light in the fall of 2005 about Jews in prison.

“I was very surprised that there really aren’t programs in Missouri at all for Jews who are in prison,” Kessler said. “Besides a Chabad rabbi and a couple of individual rabbis who visited incarcerated Jews, there really wasn’t much there to help them.”

Kessler worked with the social action group at B’nai Amoona to begin collecting books, kippot, and tallitot to send to Jewish prisoners with assistance from Jewish Prisoner Services International.

Kessler said that with help from Steve Sorkin, administrative director of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, along with Albert and local rabbis, including Rabbi Neal Rose and Rabbi Goodman, she helped form JPO.

Although the group has not secured any official funding, Kessler said the group has been able to get administrative support and meeting space from JF &CS.

JPO has previously held a support group for family members of incarcerated Jews, and they have been able to get a list of Jews incarcerated in Missouri from the Department of Corrections. The group now sends out a newsletter to prisoners around the major Jewish holidays.

Kessler has been paying for much of the postage for the books and items she sends to prisoners out of her own money.

Kessler said that while the group is still in its early stages, they have “big hopes” of eventually getting enough funding to support rabbinic chaplain visits to incarcerated Jews.

“We’ve gotten a lot of letters from prisoners, and a lot of requests,” she said. “We just don’t have the funding right now.”

Kessler said the latest figure she has from the state indicates that there are 71 prisoners in Missouri who identify themselves as Jewish.

She said that the “Shabbat of Inclusion” program was the idea of Rabbi Neal Rose.

“Rabbi Neal Rose has emphasized to us that we need to reach out to people in the margins. As Jews, we’re supposed to take care of one another,” Kessler said.

Kessler said she hopes the program will help build awareness about the issues surrounding Jews who are incarcerated, and she hopes that family members of those who are incarcerated will become aware that there is a group that hopes to help.

“There can be such a stigma out there for people who are incarcerated, or people with a family member who is incarcerated. We want them to know that there are others out there going through the same thing,” Kessler said.

For more information about JPO, email jpo.stlou[email protected] or call Louis Albert of JF &CS at 314-993-1000.