Synagogue-state program now serves Jewish inmates

The Arizona Daily Star/September 29, 1984
By Ann M. Norton

Tucson -- Jewish inmates will celebrate High Holy Days services for the first time at the Arizona Correctional Training Center, thanks to a new statewide program.

Mitch Dorson, director of education at Temple Emanu-El, and a cantorial soloist, Victor Morgen, plan to conduct a combination Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur service for Jewish inmates at the 6 ½-year-old facility on South Wilmot Road. The facility has about 12 known Jews among its inmate population of 1,400.

"Our Jewish holidays are not only a ritual observance but are, in fact, a poignant reminder of an integral part of our daily lives," said Rick A. Ross. Ross is founder of a unique new statewide Jewish prisoner service that has helped coordinate plans for Monday's service.

The 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur is a solemn period of reflection and repentance for Jews. Traditionally, many believe they can still make amends before God closes last year's chapter in their book of life. Yom Kippur, the 24 hour of atonement and fasting that concludes the High Holy Days, begins after sundown Friday.

As coordinator of Jewish Prisoner Services, Ross acts as an advocate for the state's Jewish inmates. He is also establishing links between Jewish prisoners and synagogues throughout the state. The program, sponsored by the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Phoenix, is partially funded by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

For the last year and a half, Ross, 31, has logged more than 1,000 miles a month, visiting more than 100 of the state's 125 Jewish prisoners. In addition, Ross, an articulate Reform Jew, conducts a weekly Sabbath service for Jewish inmates at the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix.

In recent years there's been a significant rise in the number of known Jews in Arizona prisons, simply because they are now identifying themselves as such, Ross said. Jews account for only 1-1.5 percent of the total Arizona prison population, nevertheless. The figure is "substantially lower" than the national Jewish population, which is about 3 percent, he said.

"However, there may still be a substantial number of unidentified Jews in the state prison system," he added.

Ross also said that "there has been a significant lessening of anti-Semitic tension throughout the state's prison system," as a result of the new program.

Two years ago inmate "hate groups" distributed anti-Semitic literature in state prison yards and there were incidents of violence against Jews, Ross said.

"What I did was work very hard with Department of Corrections officials to create guidelines for preventing such a volatile atmosphere by eliminating certain literature and promoting increased awareness of the problem."

Today only a small minority of Jews are being held in protective custody in Florence, Ross said. "In short, the situation has reversed itself and an increasing number of Jews now continuously step forth and identify themselves without fear of repercussion."

Four Phoenix rabbis assist Ross on the advisory board of Jewish Prisoner Services, a board that will soon include Temple Emanu-El's Dorson, Ross said.

The board supervises the Jewish prison ministry at all state-run DOC facilities as well as the Maricopa County Jail. It is currently not involved with either the federal prisons at Safford or the local Metropolitan Correctional Center. Both federal prisons contract with local rabbis.

Ross was vice president of a salvage firm in Phoenix three and a half years ago when a family incident raised his ire. "My grandmother was accosted by Pentecostal missionaries in a nursing home," Ross said. The event sparked his anti-proselytism efforts in the Phoenix area.

Hearing that Jewish prisoners were often targets of intensive Christian proselytizing, Ross joined DOC's ecumenical Religious Advisory Committee as a volunteer. Today he serves on the group's executive committee.

Once involved, Ross recognized a need to minister to Jewish inmates, leading him to found Jewish Prisoner Services. He now receives a salary. The program is believed to be one of only four statewide Jewish prison ministries in the country.

"As far as I know, our program is the only one that coordinates both inside the prison and facilitates post-release programming," said Ross, who also oversees job placement and counseling when Jewish prisoners are released.

Innovations have included the distribution of Passover packages to inmates last spring, with funds donated by members of synagogues. Under the service, a Kosher diet program gained momentum throughout the state prison system, and a death and funeral policy for Jewish inmates was instituted.

The program also has a death-row ministry at the Arizona State Prison in Florence for one Jewish inmate. In Goodyear, at the Arizona Correctional Training Center, a 33-year-old man is receiving weekly Bar Mitzvah instruction from two Sun City volunteers.

Ross has worked with the DOC to remove sectarian symbols from prison chapels throughout the state and to eliminate the proselytizing of Jewish inmates by Christian fundamentalists. "Where does freedom of speech end and the right to privacy begin?" he asked rhetorically.

As Ross began working with Jewish prisoners, he discovered that the majority of them had no formal training in Judaism. Last year he began pairing individual synagogues with specific prisons in a program to "Adopt a Penal Institution."

Temple Emanu-El, the only local synagogue currently participating, is paired with the Arizona Correctional Training Center. During Passover this year, members of the Reform synagogue conducted a Seder dinner for the first time at ACTC for Jewish inmates.. Temple Emanu-El has also opened its doors to two Jewish prisoners from the Southern Arizona Correctional Release Center, on West 22nd Street, who have attended weekly worship services.

Dorson and a former Temple Emanu-El teacher also provided weekly instruction in Hebrew and Jewish studies for a juvenile at the Catalina Mountain School.

"It renewed his (the juvenile's) faith in Judaism and sparked a positive attitude that, I think, will greatly aid his re-entry into a free society," Ross said.

The developing relationship between synagogues and prisoners is already having positive side effects, Ross said. At least half of the Jewish prisoners in seven state prisons and the Maricopa County Jail now attend weekly Sabbath services, complete with the lighting of candles and the blessing over grape juice and bread.

"The overwhelming majority of Jewish prisoners were not highly observant previous to their incarnation but now they find special meaning in such services," Ross said. Furthermore, "there is a family feeling among Jewish inmates. They collect in close-knit groups and offer one another camaraderie and support."

Ross said he hopes other local Jewish congregations will become involved in the prison ministry. "Temple Emanu-El's experience has proven to be as rewarding and meaningful to them as to the prisoners they have helped," Ross said.

At Temple Emanu-El the prison ministry is another extension of the Jewish faith.

"There is always an emphasis in Jewish life of aiding and helping the disadvantaged," Ross said.

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