I Found the Key to Judaism in a Prison Cell

How should we engage secular Jews? Through culture, not religion.

We walked through the prison entrance, High Holy Day prayer books in hand, clad awkwardly in suits and kippot. We were led through a never-ending series of doors until we reached a white, barren room, where a group of convicted criminals awaited us, seated on plastic chairs around a folding table. That’s where I spent this past Yom Kippur: leading services for Jewish inmates at a medium-security federal correctional facility.

I am not a rabbi and neither were my two peers who joined me in leading the service. Most of the congregants didn’t know Hebrew and some weren’t even Jewish. But it was the best Yom Kippur I’ve ever had.

 The prisoners were enticed by the idea of setting aside a day for penance. Given their backgrounds, we didn’t spend much time chanting words no one understood. Mostly, we led conversations in which we were free to draw on the richness of Jewish narratives, idioms and factoids without conforming to a strict code of practice, and we relied on central structures of Jewish civilization - like the day itself - to lead a Jewish service.

There’s a name for that: Cultural Judaism.

Rabbi Leon Morris, in a cautionary piece about Jewish culture, wrote that cultural and religious Judaism are inseparable. In many respects, he’s right. Religious Judaism is a part of Jewish civilization, which, together with Jewish art, language, politics, literacy and their many intersections is celebrated through Jewish culture. But it was ultimately the cultural, not the religious, elements of Judaism that activated 16 federal prisoners to repent on that Yom Kippur.

The power of Jewish culture in activating my Yom Kippur congregants became explicitly clear during one conversation in the selichot (repentance) section of the Amidah prayer. I asked a fairly obvious question: On this Yom Kippur, what do you feel you need to repent for? The first answer shocked me: One gentleman said his greatest sin was “lashon harah” (gossip). “What about your crime?” I secretly thought. But he continued, saying that negative speech needlessly intoxicated prison life, and both he and his friends partook in it.

I realized a few weeks later that there was an important reason lashon harah, and not his crime, was this prisoner’s cardinal sin: Judaism’s culture of community-oriented thinking. Jewish life cycles, for example, are set up to ensure maximal collective support, whether it’s celebrating the birth of a child or sitting shiva. Repentance is no exception. The Al Chet (confession of sins) that is built into the Amidah encourages us to think about how we can be better people, and relate more positively to those around us. That was precisely what this fellow experienced.

Many Jews, at least on the surface, miss out on the opportunity to conventionally, or even annually, practice repentance; only 53 percent of American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the apex of Judaism’s yearly drive for self-improvement. And who can blame them? How many people would willingly fast for 25 hours, spending most of their time in a stuffy synagogue? But in prison, the practice was extremely popular -- only one Jewish prisoner did not attend our services, and that was because he was “too religious.”

Why then, was our service so well received? Because it differed from the religious exposure most inmates were used to. One prisoner wrote to us, emphasizing how much he appreciated above all else the discussion-based format of our service. He claimed the conversations we shared about guilt, sin and repentance continued weeks after we’d left with the rest of the prison community - Jewish or otherwise. To me, that’s an exemplary model of Yom Kippur.

Those culturally Jewish prisoners, and their free counterparts, are those the Jewish-American establishment “doesn’t represent.” In a Forward article published earlier this month, many prominent Jewish organizational leaders asserted that they did not represent uninvolved, outcast, assimilated or alienated Jews. Prominent Rabbi Eric Yoffie claimed that channeling our resources to promote “aggressively secular” Jewish culture is a mistake. I think the real mistake is indicating, in any way, that cultural Jews matter less.

“Jews of no religion,” are scattered across the country in ever-growing numbers. Fortunately, my experience in prison demonstrated that among the most disparate, condemned and alienated Jews, cultural Judaism still prospers. All that mattered to the men I met on Yom Kippur was that they derived meaning and joy from a shared experience they called Jewish life. That was enough for them, and, if we want Judaism to thrive across America’s diverse communities, it must be enough for us.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at benjycannon@gmail.com

Reuters