By Katie Cohen, Coordinator, Volunteer Services
Hungry families, needy children, homeless people, mistreated animals – all of these are seen as worthwhile causes for which many of us would gladly volunteer time and energy. Especially during the High Holiday season, when we are engaged in reflection, we think about improving ourselves, as well as what we might do to “repair the world” and help others. What about people in prison? Are they just as worthy of our compassion and attention?
If you asked the volunteers involved with Jewish Prisoner Services (JPS), a program of Jewish Community Services that reaches out to Jewish men and women incarcerated in Maryland correctional institutions, the answer would be yes. About 15 volunteers make monthly visits to Jewish inmates in 7 institutions (Baltimore County, Sykesville, Hagerstown, Jessup), bringing connections to Jewish culture and community. In groups of two or more, JPS volunteers visit small groups of prisoners, engaging in Jewish learning through discussions about holidays, customs and traditions, music and sometimes prayers.
Why do the volunteers believe this is important? It is a central Jewish value to care about people who are on the fringes of society or marginalized. For almost 100 years since JPS began, the same values are still motivating volunteers. Prison is a “dreadful existence in a very hostile environment about which most people in society do not have a clue,” says Larry, who has been a JPS volunteer for over 20 years. “Family members and society have most often written these people off and therefore they have no visitors or outside contact.” Larry feels his visits are very much appreciated by the inmates and “it gives them something to hold onto and look forward to.” Jewish prisoners (who number about 150 in Maryland) are a tiny minority of inmates. For many of them, the JPS volunteers, along with occasional contacts with a Jewish chaplain, are their sole link to the Jewish community.
John especially enjoys this very different type of volunteer experience, which he’s been doing for four years, and feels it is a true mitzvah. He enjoys bringing a touch of Judaism to the lives of the two inmates he visits each month, in addition to discussing current events and sports. “These two people made some bad decisions, for which they are now sorry, but they have been abandoned by their families.” John appreciates the camaraderie with other JPS volunteers, and has gained a special appreciation of the meaning of freedom.
Jewish Prisoner Services goes back to 1912 when three volunteers created a mentoring program to prevent at risk youths from getting involved in crime. In 1916 JPS became a program of the Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League, and is now part of Jewish Community Services.
Harvey, who began volunteering for JPS a year and a half ago, observes: “Although the inmates have committed a crime, they will most likely be released back into society at some point. Therefore it is beneficial for them to have members of society visiting.” Harvey hopes that when the inmates are released, they can become contributing members to society. If his visits help in any small way to achieve this goal, then they are worthwhile. “These are vulnerable people who deserve our attention and help.”
One female inmate said, “I so enjoy the time with the volunteers. They are wonderful people and they so eased my own suffering.” JPS volunteers find their visits help inmates who might not otherwise meet in prison to connect with each other, for example at Shabbat services, which they lead themselves. They find they can be of support to each other.
Imagine the powerful experience of holding a Passover Seder in a prison, as some JPS volunteers do. Imagine the feelings of inmates, and of the visitors who are free to come and go, when they read together the passages about our ancestors in Egypt being delivered “from slavery to freedom.” JPS volunteers bring a ray of hope and a sense of connection to our fellow Jews behind bars. As one male inmate said, “I remember your 100% support of me – even in my worst hours! Your support saw me through. I know and believe G-D sent you to ‘keep’ me in OUR faith. Remember Joseph spent 7 years in a cell also. Thank you very much for your support and love.”
By Katie Cohen, Volunteer Coordinator Jewish Prisoner Services and Volunteer Recruitment Jewish Big Brother Big Sister, Volunteer Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.
Jewish Community Services needs more volunteers to visit inmates. If you are interested in learning more, please call Katie Cohen at 410-843-7462. For other volunteer opportunities through JCS, visit www.jcsbaltimore.org/volunteer