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Let Them Eat Bread

Riki Goldstein

It started when Rabbi Yisroel Stessel of Monroe was contacted by a Jew from abroad whose relative was incarcerated in a New York correctional facility

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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It didn’t take long for Rabbi Stessel to realize that the Orthodox inmates needed many things, and made it his business to set about improving their situation. Today Rabbi Stessel — with the endorsement and backing of Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar — runs a well-organized group who’ve learned the unique culture of the prison system and the mindset of the jailers and the jailed.

R abbi Yisroel Chaim Stessel’s day job is publishing seforim, but a large part of his life revolves around those who’ve been “booked” another way — he works together with prison chaplains from around the United States to bring mehadrin kosher food and religious articles to frum Jews behind bars.

Right now, menorahs and olive oil lighting kits are stacked along the walls of his Shlom Asirayich offices in the upstate New York Satmar community of Monroe, to be distributed by volunteers to men who will be spending the Festival of Lights far away from their families and communities. At least these imprisoned Yidden will be able to bring the glow of Chanukah flames to the prison chapel, before the nightly curfew obliges them to return to their cells.

There are several dedicated organizations that take care of the needs of Jewish prisoners. Shlom Asirayich — which today acts as a private contractor for the Prisons Services in meal production and coordinates a cadre of volunteers who try to meet the religious needs of imprisoned Jews — began 22 years ago, when a Jew from abroad contacted Rabbi Stessel, asking him to take care of a relative who was serving time in a New York correctional facility. It didn’t take long for Rabbi Stessel to realize that the Orthodox inmates needed many things, and made it his business to set about improving their situation. Today Rabbi Stessel — with the endorsement and backing of Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar — runs a well-organized group who’ve learned the unique culture of the prison system and the mindset of the jailers and the jailed.

Prison rules regarding food are strict and non-negotiable: no one may donate food to prisoners. Instead, the prison must purchase it. Food provision is adequate, although by no means lavish or enticing, and kosher food with a mehadrin hechsher is available on request. Rabbi Stessel’s kitchen supplies kosher food to several prison facilities in New York state, as well as to state psychiatric facilities.

In many facilities, the prisoners’ menu includes sliced bread, and everyone receives the same thing: three pieces for breakfast and four for lunch. Rabbi Stessel explains that the kosher bread provision is one example of accommodation.

 

“Slices of bread look the same, kosher or not, so some frum inmates at a certain prison were worried that it could easily be exchanged for the non-kosher bread. They requested that the bread be sealed, and the administration agreed, as long as it could be supplied at the same price and didn’t appear preferential. Of course, we were able to take care of that. At one point, we suggested to the prison that we supply one roll that was the same thickness as the three pieces. We received permission for this, and that’s how these men received a bilkeleh for Shabbos and could make their own lechem mishneh, which was very important to them.”


Isolated

A frum Jew who isn’t careful about the law can find himself behind bars — today there are minimum- and medium-security facilities with daily minyanim, and others where a solitary Yid sits among a thousand non-Jews. Rabbi Stessel has been contacted on behalf of frum men incarcerated in Jewishly-isolated places like Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado, and while it’s admittedly tough for an observant Jew to be in a totally non-Jewish environment with no kosher kitchen or other amenities, there are hidden advantages, Rabbi Stessel says. “Being alone can have its advantages too, because when it’s just one individual requesting religious items or different foods and not an entire group to accommodate, there is less attention to ‘not letting the Jewish guys get better stuff,’ less focus on their being Jewish.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 685)

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