Life & Culture

Revealed: the inside story of the prison rabbis

Meet the chaplains whose flock includes murderers, rapists and the odd fake Jew


When a non-Jew in prison wants to claim they are Jewish, as apparently happens “all the time”, one of the first things they do is ask for a Torah.

“They say: ‘I wanna Taawrah’,” explains Rabbi Michael Binstock, director of Jewish Prison Chaplaincy, who has been working as a prison rabbi in England and Wales for over 40 years.

“They don’t pronounce it ‘Toirah, Towrah, Tawruh’, all acceptable Jewish ways of pronouncing it. They say: ‘I wanna Taawrah’. Now of course, a Jew won’t ask for that, they would ask for a Chumash,” he chuckles gleefully.

Rabbi Binstock is one of 40 Jewish chaplains who provide support for around 200 Jewish prisoners across England and Wales. The problem is, first you have to work out which prisoners are actually Jewish.

“Prisoners have the right to change their registered religion,” he explains. “They can be Jewish this week, Muslim the next, and Buddhist the week after, that’s their right.”

In turn Rabbi Binstock has the right to confirm or deny that Jewish status — and over the years he has developed different tactics to establish the truth.

“Normally I say: ‘Which shul were you barmitzvah?’,” he explains. “And if they haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, that’s a fairly good indication.”

Sometimes, however, it is more complicated. “I had a non-Jewish guy a few weeks ago; he wanted a copy of the Talmud. Now, the Talmud is bigger than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so I went to see him but he wasn’t around. So I just scribbled on his application form: ‘As you are aware’ (I was being sarcastic) ‘the Talmud is vast, so please indicate which particular tractate you want’.”

He draws breath: “I haven’t heard another thing!”

The rabbi has learned to treat these false claims with equanimity. “It is a time waster, it can be problematic, but by and large we treat it with a certain amount of amusement,” he says.

He suggests that, since the kosher food is not much better than regular prison fare, the reason prisoners may try to pretend to be Jewish is just to feel they can beat the system. But perhaps he is being modest when he says this. The extra lengths he and his fellow chaplains go to to support genuinely Jewish inmates would be reason enough for any prisoner to try to join their congregation.

The chaplaincy is run under the auspices of the United Synagogue but is truly cross-communal — Rabbi Michael Binstock is Orthodox, Rabbi Shmuel Arkush is Lubavitch, Rabbi Cliff Cohen is Reform and Rabbi Rebecca Birk is Progressive. Each manages to achieve a remarkable level of Jewish tradition and observance among their prisoners.

Rabbi Birk has just held a Seder in Holloway women’s prison, as she does every year. “We have a shortened Haggadah and I bring in food and we do it during the day. It’s truly extraordinary doing a Seder about freedom behind the bars of a prison.”

Passover is not the only festival celebrated under lock and key. Rabbi Cohen remembers how he began his work in four Kent prisons. “I started five years ago when there was a Jewish prisoner in Canterbury for the first time in anyone’s memory. It was Chanucah, so I spoke to the catering department, explained what it was all about. They looked up some recipes and made some latkes and bought in some doughnuts.”

Observance of Chanucah poses a very particular problem — lighting the menorah. Rabbi Arkush, who is based at Chabad Birmingham and ministers to more than a dozen prisons across the Midlands, has found a surprising, inter-faith solution. “I can’t be everywhere to light Chanucah candles, so the imams do it for me. The imams are extremely helpful.”

Rosh Hashanah has proved more challenging for Rabbi Cohen, who works in Swaleside, a category B prison in Kent that houses long-term inmates.

“I take in a shofar. I have to explain to security that the warden does know about it and that it’s nothing to do with drugs. Then I have to explain to the guards that it is going to make a loud noise but no one has to press any alarms.”

Rabbi Binstock has not only negotiated ways for prisoners to light Chanucah candles in their cells, but has also facilitated Shabbat candle-lighting in a women’s prison and even the building of a succah. “We got one of those pop-up succahs to put in the exercise yard,” he says.

As the Jewish faith adviser to the Prison Service, he deals with all the unusual requests that staff do not know what to do with, because, as Rabbi Arkush puts it, “Jews turn up in funny places”.

Some of those requests are more genuine than others. Rabbi Binstock says: “I got a call from a prison about a guy who said he’s got to have a free phone call every Friday to speak to his mother in order to know what time Shabbos comes in and goes out. I said tell him to ask his mother to send him a luach. He must have loved me.”

It is the more observant Jews who create the greatest logistical challenges. One episode that went down in chaplaincy history was the case of the shomer Shabbat prisoner who was due to be released on Succot. Given that release dates are non-negotiable and prisoners must sign official papers, there was a dilemma — the prison staff had to let him out, but the prisoner did not want to go. Rabbi Arkush says: “I said to them: ‘You’re putting him in a situation where he’s going to be illegal’. After a great deal of work, the chaplaincy managed to arrange an unprecedented release on temporary licence for the prisoner’s final day in jail, essentially releasing him a day early.

For Rabbi Arkush, however, there was an even more memorable event. “I had a murderer, a very high profile case, a foreign national. One of the first times I met him was when his wife had died and he obviously couldn’t attend the funeral. So I conducted a full Jewish funeral service in the prison, just me, him and two other Jewish prisoners I pulled in. It was very emotional. It’s five years ago now and we still talk about.”

When Rabbi Binstock began work, even a brit milah could be performed in prison. Now, with stricter rules on blades, it is more difficult. He describes his disappointment that one of his Chasidic prisoners missed his son’s brit.

“It was on Christmas day of all days. We tried very hard to get permission for him to be allowed out, but because of the nature of his offences, the co-ordinating chaplain said to me: ‘Michael, the deputy governor has said no and it’s non-negotiable’. If it’s no, you have to accept that sometimes. In the end they gave him a long phone call. I was at the brit, he spoke for at least half an hour on speaker-phone and I took photographs to show him the next day. That was the best we could do.”

That particular prisoner, who was Israeli and spoke no English, and whose cell was described as “like a mini Beit Midrash”, tested the system to its limits. “One day,” Rabbi Binstock says, “he told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that he had a problem learning because he had no chavrutah, no learning partner. He was sort of challenging me.

“The education department didn’t want to know. I went to the diversity officer and I said: ‘It’s an unusual request, but let me tell you a little bit about the Jewish community: one of the ways we learn and study is with a partner’. ‘Ooh’, she said, ‘that’s wonderful’. She facilitated one of his chavrutah from his Stamford Hill to come in every week with his gemorah.”

Despite many triumphs, each of the chaplains occasionally finds the demands of the role difficult to handle.

Rabbi Arkush describes some of his prisoners as “people who are aspiring to be Orthodox”, because their crime and their Orthodoxy “would normally be seen as a contradiction”.

Rabbi Birk, is deeply affected by the women she works with, some of whom she says “are ashamed to meet a rabbi”.

Even Rabbi Binstock says working with one particular “revolving door” prisoner, now in his late 40s, is depressing. “He is a very sad case — he’s had gambling and drug addictions. He does house burglaries to fund his addictions and he’s not very good at it because he keeps getting caught. He has major hearing loss, he can’t work, he goes to hospitals, he can’t get on with the people. He’s a neb.”

Difficulties are not always emotional ones. Rabbi Cohen says: “I had one prisoner who was on a dirty protest about six months ago so he was in the segregation unit. He was so mucky I couldn’t see if he was Jewish or not.”

However, each chaplain is clear that their work makes a difference. One convicted murderer who had been released on licence from a psychiatric prison, wrote to Rabbi Binstock to say that the hours they spent talking together were the only reason he had not committed suicide.

One misconception about Jewish prisoners that the chaplains can set right, is that the vast majority are guilty of white-collar crimes. Far from it.

“You name it and they’ve done it,” Rabbi Binstock says. “The myth that they’re all in there for fraud is just that, a myth. In fact, at one stage the majority of prisoners I had were sex offenders.”

Swaleside, where Rabbi Cohen works, is, he says, “mostly murder”. “The prisoners have been in gangs and often killed more than once. They do talk about it — I have to kind of ignore the fact that some of them have a lot less remorse than others.”

If the crimes are more serious than is commonly thought, then at least there is good news when it comes to the number of Jews inside. With a population hovering consistently around 200 inmates, Jews are under-represented by a rate of 50 per cent. Rabbi Birk feels this may have a lot to do with attitudes to drugs.

“Most women are in prison because of drugs and the Jewish community is relatively good at helping our young people keep clear of that. There is also something about familial values and being cared for — often the women that end up in Holloway don’t have that.”

The lack of antisemitism is also noted by all. Indeed, Rabbi Cohen recalls how one of his Chasidic prisoners shared a cell with a Muslim from the West Indies. “They got on like a house on fire. They were just guys who got on with each other.”

Day to day, one of the bigger issues to deal with is educating prison staff. A couple of weeks ago, a prison catering department emailed Rabbi Arkush for advice, because a large group of “Russian Orthodox” prisoners had arrived. “I had to explain that Jews are not the only religion to have an Orthodoxy,” he smiles.

But the greatest challenges come once the prisoners have been released. First, there is the issue of keeping in touch. Rabbi Arkush warns. “Prisoners collect information, trade information — you have to be careful what you give away.”

But, second, and much worse, is the lack of communal support for ex-convicts. “There needs to be a sensitivity about aiding them to reintergrate.” Rabbi Arkush says.

“If the community could be helpful in finding jobs, places to live, just not shunning then, that would be great.”

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