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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.
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
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
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
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!
WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO DO FOR OUR INCARCERATED BRETHREN AND THEIR
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
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
Now, select your favorite mitzvah or mitzvot from above and contact:
CHAPLAIN GARY FRIEDMAN, CHAIRMAN
JEWISH PRISONER SERVICES INTERNATIONAL HOME OFFICE:
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: E-mail: email@example.com
1007 N.E. 52nd Street,
Seattle, WA 98105,
from theIssue Number 21, May 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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