New group helping Jews in European jails

The European Aleph Institute was founded to ensure that Jewish inmates can observe religious needs.

prison88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The guards have made trouble for "Rivka" Cohen's husband since he was jailed in Bordeaux, France, in early November for smuggling cigarettes, she said. The problems are mostly minor: prohibiting hard-cover books, burrowing through his food packages, not letting his clothes out for washing. But according to Cohen, her husband is the only one who faces these problems, and that, she charged, is because he's an Orthodox Jew. "It's anti-Semitism. That's it. My husband is the only Jewish person in the jail and they make problems because of it," she said over the telephone from Antwerp, where she lives with her five children. The food packages, she noted, were specially prepared kosher meals; the books prayerbooks and Torah commentary. Recently, a Belgian rabbi got her in touch with a new Brussels-based group dedicated to helping Jewish prisoners and their families. The organization has contacted the prison authorities on Cohen's behalf, as well as the Israeli authorities, since he holds both Belgian and Israeli citizenship. "They're trying to help me. I can't say it always works," she said. "But just knowing that they're there for me is a big thing. It's a problem to be alone with these things, and not know whom to talk to." Had her husband been arrested two months earlier, Cohen wouldn't have had even that limited help. The European Aleph Institute was founded only in September. The organization was started to make sure that Jewish inmates in European prisons are able to observe dietary laws, rituals and holidays, as well as to foster a connection to Judaism in the belief that it will ultimately help prisoners avoid recidivism. "There are many places where the basic rights of Jewish prisoners don't exist," said Aleph founder Rabbi Levy Kanelsky. "We're here to make sure that all the basic rights are given to Jewish prisoners." And, he said, "We're giving them the tools to return to an honest life within the Jewish community." The organization helps arrange kosher meals, religious texts and ritual objects for prisoners, provides counseling and Jewish education services and gives monetary and other forms of support to families whose breadwinners are in prison. Kanelsky estimates that 3,500 to 5,000 Jews are imprisoned in Europe, among them many Israelis, though he explained he had no concrete statistics on nationality or religion since the organization just started. Anyway, he said, many of the Jewish prisoners who ask for kosher meals have no history of observance. Kanelsky acknowledged that prisoners might be requesting the special food because it tastes better than mess hall fare and comes in clean packages - in fact, Aleph has drafted lengthy questionnaires and family interviews to determine if inmates really are Jewish and entitled to kosher food. But he maintained that they also wanted to be more observant because in jail "suddenly they remember God...They have to sit in a room for two years, 10 years. They have a lot of time. They think about themselves and what they did, and how to change their ways." Kanelsky called the high incidence of becoming more observant a certifiable "phenomenon." And according to Rabbi Arye Leib Heintz, a member of Aleph's board of advisers, returning to religion decreases the likelihood that an inmate will return to a life of crime once he's released. "It's not that they decided one day to be a criminal, like people decide to be a lawyer or a doctor," said Heintz, who serves as one of Holland's two national Jewish prison chaplains. "People become criminals because they have a problem, the way they were brought up," for example. "If you can deal with the problem, if you can deal with them as people and give them something they can sink their teeth into, they can get inspired," he said, recalling prisoners he's worked with who begin to pray regularly and in one case even brought a ritual circumciser into prison to have a brit mila. "Someone who calls a mohel into prison and puts on tefillin every morning is not the same kind of person who's going to commit a crime," he said. Still, he noted that incarcerated Jews have committed all kinds of crimes and even occasionally try to interpret Halacha to help their case. Kanelsky stressed that his organization - which borrows its name from a similar group in the US - is for Jews of any persuasion. Though he himself is a Chabad rabbi, he said Aleph wants to help all Jews, whether they are religious or not. Any Jew, he said, can encounter problems from the high number of Arab and Muslim prisoners in European jails. Often, though, the difficulties Jewish inmates face come from religious observance. This Pessah, Aleph arranged for a prisoner in Cyprus to receive matza only to have the guards refuse to allow it in the facility. The rabbi had to explain to the authorities that the inmate would go on a hunger strike rather than eat hametz during the holiday. To avoid such situations in the future, Aleph plans to distribute a book for prison managers on basic terms and aspects of Jewish observance. It hopes to educate more people about Judaism and prepare them for prisoners' needs ahead of each holiday. "We want everyone to know that there are Jews here and they have rights," Kanelsky said. "If we know of places where [prisoners] need help, we'll take care of it."