By Ezra Weener – 2nd year madrich
Growing up, I was taught that I definitely didn’t want to end up in prison. From TV shows such as Orange Is The New Black and Prison Break, I thought prison was only a place for immoral people and was a wasteland for people not fit to be part of society. Therefore, when I was approached to join the University of Maryland Hillel and the Aleph Institute’s Yom Kippur in Prison program, I was a bit skeptical.
I couldn’t see the point in running Yom Kippur services for people who clearly didn’t care about G-d or Judaism. However, after talking to some people who had participated in years past, I was convinced how worthwhile and eye-opening an experience it could be. Not being a fan of the classic Yom Kippur, I wasn’t so hard to convince. I signed up and asked if my friend Andrew Pitkoff (also a Yavneh madrich) could come along as well. We were both confirmed including passing a background check. The participants were then split up into our groups depending on which prison we were going to and prepared a plan for services. We prepared the Torah reading as well as learning the Kol Nidre and Neilah services. For each section we prepared discussion questions to engage with the inmates and hopefully create a meaningful experience.
The morning before Yom Kippur, we went to Hillel to pick up Machzorim and a Torah. The five of us going to Allenwood Correctional Facility packed into a small car with our necessities. We drove half an hour and picked up an RV which slept five people. We filled it with all our belongings and got on the road. After a three hour drive we parked in the field abutting the prison complex.
As it became time for Kol Nidre, we walked a half mile to the prison and were checked by the chaplain and escorted to the chapel. Walking through the huge barbed-wire gates was nerve-wracking even though we still hadn’t seen any inmates. We arrived at the chapel, set up chairs and prepared to lead. Inmates started filing in one by one. Each one would come in with a smile on their face and a kind greeting. It was immediately clear that these people had no resemblance to what you see on TV.
As we led the services, we also had deep discussions about what it is like to be judged by G-d and how it compares to being judged by a Judge in a courtroom. They all discussed their experiences and were quick to give advice. Each inmate had a tone of regret and understanding in their voices and were pleased that their experience could have the possibility to positively impact others. For some, prison was a lonely place where they were doing their time and getting out. For others, it was a place where they could stay sober for an extended period of time and get in shape. One man had lost over a hundred pounds since he arrived and exercises every day. We got to discuss their mistakes and their ability to come back from and atone for their sins – it was incredibly meaningful.
Some of them had lives surprisingly similar to ours. Whether they had gone to Jewish school or were in the same fraternity in college as some of our friends, it was eye-opening. Most of them were normal people who got lured in by an opportunity that they should have rejected. It was clear when talking to them that they were just regular people who had made mistakes. They were very forthcoming with advice on how not to follow in their footsteps and felt genuinely invested in us as people.
It was a powerful experience which I would recommend to anyone given the opportunity. Spending time with and learning from people who have lived through this experience is a gift. It really changed my perception and gave me a good outlook on my future and how to go about achieving my goals.