Programs serve needs of Jewish Prisoners

Tempe Daily News/August 25, 1984
By Lawn Griffiths

For the first time in history of the Arizona Department of Corrections this summer, a Jewish funeral took place within prison walls for a deceased Jewish inmate.

It was conducted by a Tempe rabbi July 26 at the state prison at Florence, and Rabbi David Pinkwasser of Temple Emanuel, 5801 S. Rural Road, sees that event as part of growing involvement of the Arizona Jewish community with incarcerated Jews.

According to Rick Ross, coordinator of Jewish Prison Services, the funeral was possible because mechanics with prison officials on conducting Jewish funerals inside prison walls had been worked out.

"There was not a properly coordinated program to take care of this thing," he said. "It was a first-time program. There was a minion formed from Jewish prisoners who knew the deceased and Rabbi Pinkwasser."

About 100 Jews are behind bars in Arizona, convicted or awaiting trial for crimes committed. About half are in the Arizona State Prison at Florence.

Ross is making certain they aren't forgotten, and the way the Arizona Jewish Community has identified and adopted them for spiritual aid is becoming a model nationwide, he said.

"Before I came on as coordinator of the program, there simply wasn't any organized or coordinated effort in Arizona to meet the needs of the Jewish prisoner," Ross said. "They were often neglected or forgotten. The only efforts were those made by individual rabbis."

There are 17 chaplains in the Arizona prison system, but none is a rabbi chaplain. The Jewish Family and Children's Service now has a contract with the Department of Corrections to provide behind-prison-wall services for Jewish residents in cooperation with individual Jewish congregations.

"We're celebrating holiday observances throughout the state," Ross said. "On the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah, Sept 27-28), Temple Emanuel of Tempe and Rabbi Pinkwasser will conduct High Holy Days at Florence for three of the units of the facility."

He said Phoenix's Temple Beth Israel will serve the rest of the prison's Jewish population. Meanwhile, Temple Beth Shalom of Sun City will serve the Arizona Correctional Training Center/Perryville; Temple Emanuel of Tucson, the training center of Tucson; and the Har Zion Congregation of Scottsdale, the Alhambra Reception and Treatment Center of Phoenix.

There are other plans to become involved with the Arizona Center for Women in Phoenix and the Southern Arizona Pre-Release Center.

"Prisoners throughout the state will receive individual rabbinical visits," Ross said. And inmates on minimum release status, who are eligible, are being permitted to take part in individual temple services this year.

It was the Sun City temple that first adopted a penal institution to serve, Ross said.

He read part of a letter received last spring from a female Jewish inmate of the Maricopa County Jail thanking the Jewish community for serving her one of the first five Seder (Passover) dinner ever served in that jail.

"I remembered again what it was like to be a Jew… Thank you for reminding me of my heritage. It filled a void at a lonely time."

Ross oversaw the work of seven congregations that served Seder dinners to every incarcerated Jew in the state last Passover.

Rabbi Pinkwasser recalled that he took several members from his congregation with him to serve the Seder at Florence prison. "All were very apprehensive since none of us had ever done any of this. We were very, very well received. They were hungering for spiritual guidance and contact and appreciated that we made the trip out," he said.

Ross, who has been employed by the Jewish Family and Children's Service about a year, is working with Arizona Department of Corrections to have added to the inmate's daily diet one kosher meal tray and two pork-free meals. So far only 27 Jewish inmates are served in that program, coordinated through the prison.

Ross said the increased Jewish community presence in state correction facilities is easing anti-Semitic prejudice in jail populations as inmates are exposed to more Jewish customs, beliefs and traditions.

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