Jewish Prisioner Services Help Jews in Jail

    Issue Number 21, May 1999          
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Jewish Prisoner Services

An Advocacy Agency that Helps Jewish Prisoners and their Families

JEWISH PRISONER SERVICES INTERNATIONAL is a non profit organization run by a small group of highly dedicated volunteers focused on the belief that just because someone has made a mistake he/she should not be forgotten and written off by society. We believe the ancient sage who said in effect that helping the imprisoned is the loftiest of all charitable acts, superseding all other forms. (Maimonides 1135-1204 C.E)

Initially launched under the sponsorship of B'nai B'rith and now an independent entity, JPSI has grown to the point where we have volunteers across the country providing direct services to prisoners throughout the United States, Canada and Israel. Our volunteers come from all walks of life --- businessmen, correctional facility employees, educators, lawyers, professionals, rabbis and judges. In addition, we have ex-offenders who, in the past, were recipients of the group's help. After serving their sentences, they have joined JPSI to reciprocate and become involved in reaching out to those they left behind.

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A typical example is the state of Florida where some 250 Jewish prisoners are sprinkled and spread throughout Florida's 65+ correctional facilities. Similar conditions prevail just about anywhere in the nation. At places like Sumter Correctional Institution it really isn't a problem. There are usually about 23 Jews living, working and davening in the compound. They gather on Erev Shabbat for observances that are typically followed by a bare-bones Oneg Shabbat celebration. They've created and printed their own siddurim, there's an Ark (no Torah yet!), tallaisim and kippot available for those who wish to wear them. Chaplain Panzetta is Judaically literate. So much so that there are Hebrew classes scheduled on Monday nights. This is one Florida prison facility that only requires minimal attention from our organization.

Hendry Correctional Institution near Immokalee, Florida has about 13 Jewish men between the compound and the work camp. Thanks to volunteers like Cantor Wilfond, Alan Kaplan and Burt Caplan, virtually every Jewish holiday is acknowledged and observed. The men enjoy self-conducted Hebrew studies and are constantly reciting their barachot and discussing Torah and Shulchan Aruch.

But Sumter and Hendry Correctional are the exceptions and not the rule. There are many prisons in Florida, around the nation and the world that house just one or two Jews. What do these isolated, overlooked and often forgotten members of the faith do for spiritual nourishment?

Until Jewish Prisoner Services International was formed they considered themselves fortunate if they had a worn-out, faded copy of a 1950's vintage Union Prayer Book. Those who had a Tanakh, no matter the shape it was in, were regarded as blessed beyond belief. Jewish Prisoner Services International gradually links up with these disconnected souls and sees to it that they receive all that they need to keep their personal spiritual growth program in high gear. When we learn that the Jewish reading materials shelves in a chapel library are bare, we immediately assemble a carton or two of the essentials and have them delivered post haste.

To supplement the books that we furnish at no charge, there's our outstanding video lending library. Coordinated by Naples, Florida resident, Marilyn Pahl, JPSI's collection of loaner tapes includes well-known titles like Schindler's List, Exodus, Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl and other popular titles. To provide a balanced mix of video offerings, JPSI's catalog includes a complete listing of Holocaust tapes, Talmud and Torah films and college-level courses in Jewish Theology and Medieval Judaism. All tapes are provided on a free-loan basis, but there are two titles that are donated and may be kept by prison chaplains. Specifically, we send Erev Shabbat videotapes to any requesting jail or prison in the nation. Why? Because there is nothing temporary or transitory about Shabbat. This Holy Day occurs 52 times a year, and with the magic of video, even isolated members of the faith can feel that they are linked with their Creator and with their distant brethren. Our Shabbat tapes are also sent free of charge to any nursing home, hospital or retirement center that requests them. We believe that all of our isolated brethren should be afforded the opportunity to experience Shabbat Shalom.

What do our brethren behind the wire and walls want to receive? Very popular around the nation is the Mogen David. We purchase economy versions by the hundreds and they are worn with pride by thousands of Jewish prisoners. We cannot get enough Tanakhim (Jewish Bibles) to meet the demand. Popular, too, are biographies, history books, Hebrew-learners, Jewish-flavored novels, and courses in conversational Hebrew. Needless to say, greeting cards, tallaisim, siddurim, mahzorim, kippot, tzitzit and teffilin score high on just about any Jewish prisoner's wish list. Where do we get the money to purchase all of these expensive spiritual necessities? We don't. In fact we rarely purchase any of these items due to our limited funds. Rather, we appreciatively retrieve leftovers, surplus and unwanted Judaica whenever and wherever possible. The prisoners enjoy speculating about the people who have worn and used these items for so many years. They like the idea that a kippah, tallit, or set of phylacteries had been lovingly used by someone who really was into davening.

Precisely why we call upon all that read these words to scour their attics, basements and storerooms and send their dormant Judaica to us. This is an exceptional opportunity to enhance the spiritual evolvement of those who will surely appreciate these acts of tzedakah and mitzvot. As we learn from Talmud, to save one life is to save the world. Together, we can change and save lives. Together, we can give real meaning and substance to the words that are a vital spoke in the Judaic Master-Wheel, Tikkun Olam.

One of our most notable successes is our professionally conducted Marriage Enrichment Seminar. This two-day program for Jewish prisoners and their wives is produced by Larry Karlin, JPSI vice-chairman, and conducted by Dr. Bernard Guerney, a former Pennsylvania State University professor of human development. He has adapted his "Relationship Enhancement Program" specifically to reduce the high rate of divorces attributed to the trauma of forced separation that is part and parcel of the incarceration experience.

Also, in recent years, we have matched hundreds of Jewish prisoners with compatible pen pals. We have continued our holiday greeting card program in which we send Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and Hanukkah cards to prisoners so that they may, in turn, send them out to their family and friends. This helps them maintain contact with their family and gives them a feeling of inclusion during the holiday as opposed to reinforcing their already heightened feelings of isolation and despair.

We have also affected an increase in volunteer participation in our prison visitation programs. Volunteers go into the prisons to visit prisoners on an ongoing basis to observe Shabbat, the High Holy Days, Pesach and other rabbinical and scriptural holidays.

As we look to the future, JPSI's leadership seeks to become more involved in the formation of Jewish post-release facilities or halfway houses. We'd like to be able to offer more support for the families of Jewish incarcerates. We seek to have an even bigger and better free video-lending library, an ever-enlarging pen-pal program, and an expanded Judaica distribution center that will truly accommodate the spiritual-growth aspirations of all Jews who practice their faith behind the wire and walls.

Clearly, our successes and achievements would be unrealizable without the support and commitment of the worldwide Jewish community. We hope that as you read of our mitzvot you will be inspired to join with us at any level or levels of participation that are of interest to you. We are eternally grateful for your support and involvement. Reaching out to the forgotten and the needy---it's what living Judaism is all about!


Potentials and possibilities for participation in prison programs are numerous and varied. The Jewish Prisoner Services International, a not-for-profit, social service agency needs your help with the following:

  • Pen Pal Programs - You can write to a lonely Jewish inmate. JPSI will sponsor and instruct you in corresponding with one (or more) of some 650 Jewish inmates currently on a national pen pal waiting list.

  • Religious Materials/Judaica - New or used Torahs, prayer books and other Jewish religious, educational and secular materials are always needed. As an approved prison program, JPSI will send these items on your behalf to individual Jewish inmates and chapel libraries.

  • Visits - Individually or with others, you can visit imprisoned Jews in your area on a regular or occasional basis. The JPSI will sponsor and instruct you in visitation programs.

  • Families - In person or anonymously, you can assist a Jewish inmate's family while their loved one is incarcerated. The JPSI will instruct and connect you with one of many such families.

  • Mentors - You can help to guide a Jewish man or woman through the difficult post-release period toward a successful transition into the community. The JPSI will instruct you and connect you with a Jewish inmate prior to his or her release.

  • Ideas - No one in the corrections field has all the answers, and your idea might lead to a successful new program. The JPSI is always looking for input from the community.

  • Contributions - Even if you are unable to do something in person, your tax- deductible contribution will help defray our many and ongoing operating costs.

Now, select your favorite mitzvah or mitzvot from above and contact:

P.O. BOX 85840,
SEATTLE, WA 98145-1840
Phone: 206-985-0577-Fax: 206-985-0479
Call Collect-Emergencies Only: 206-528-0363

Please Send Judaica Packages To:
1007 N.E. 52nd Street,
Seattle, WA 98105,



from theIssue Number 21, May 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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