An image from a Matir Asurim holiday mailer, which goes out to incarcerated people around the US and Canada.
(This article previously appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)
Michelle Angelina had been incarcerated in a New Jersey state prison for a decade and a half and was a practicing Wiccan when she decided, in 2016, to return to her Jewish roots. Although her birth mother was Jewish, Angelina had been raised by non-Jewish family members, so had never had access to religious community or education. Now she wanted that to change. Angelina wrote a letter to the Chabad-affiliated Aleph Institute, the primary nonprofit in the country dedicated to serving incarcerated Jews, and asked for assistance and resources in navigating her religious journey. In response, according to Angelina, Aleph sent a form outlining what documentation she would need to substantiate that she was Jewish according to Jewish law.
Yet like many Jews behind bars, Angelina lacked the paperwork to satisfy these stringent requirements. “I was shocked at how rejecting they were,” she told me. Without their help, she couldn’t obtain items she wanted for her religious practice and learning, including Jewish texts. Over the next few years, Angelina sought out assistance from other Jewish organizations and institutions, including a progressive Brooklyn-based shul, but none responded to her letters with any regularity.
In Virginia, an incarcerated Black man named Jarod Jones was facing similar challenges. Jones was first introduced to Judaism by a college friend about nine years ago. In 2018, after he got locked up, he decided he wanted to keep learning about the religion. “On a spiritual level, Judaism has brought purpose, clarity, and love into my life,” he told me. Jones wrote to a list of Jewish organizations provided to him by a prison chaplain, including Aleph, but none were willing to provide him with services or support, he said. (By Jones’ recollection, one group told him that based on the results of their research, it appeared he did not qualify for services, as they only supported individuals of actual Jewish descent—a response that led him to suspect that the group had looked him up on the the Department of Corrections website and ruled him out based on race.)
In my years reporting on prison issues, I’ve encountered many individuals with stories like Angelina’s and Jones’s: incarcerated Jews, many of them queer and trans people or people of color, who struggled to find any resources to support their religious life. One individual who has helped provide religious services on Rikers Island and who asked to remain anonymous to preserve her access to the jail, told me that the meager allowances for Jewish life in prisons stand in stark contrast with the amount of resources that go into cultivating Jewish life on the outside. “Once you’re incarcerated, unless you’re someone that Aleph values, in the Jewish world it’s like you’re no longer relevant,” she said.
In an email, an Aleph spokesperson denied that they only provide religious services to people who can prove their Jewish lineage: “We do not ask or screen any applicants for their race, gender, or sexual orientation, and they have no bearing on our provision of Jewish services or general services.” The only exception, said the spokesperson, is programming involving intrapersonal observance, such as counting members of a minyan for prayer, where a person’s official status might affect the group’s ability to carry out the ritual. “For programs with Halachic requirements, we follow the traditional and Halachic definition whether someone it Jewish (born to Jewish mother, has undergone an appropriate Jewish conversion).” The spokesperson said that Aleph also provided humanitarian advocacy for people behind bars regardless of religious affiliation, including on matters regarding individual medical care, constitutional rights, family unity, unwarranted solitary confinement, safety issues, and religious observance needs.
For years, Chabad has been the only Jewish movement committing significant money and time to this work. In an email, the organization estimated that each year they facilitate more than 2,000 rabbinical visits to prisoners and send over 100,000 religious, educational, and holiday items to prisons nationwide. The lived experiences of incarcerated Jews are scarcely mentioned otherwise, even within the most progressive Jewish communities. Recently, however, while reporting on Angelina’s historic marriage to her wife, I learned about a new initiative called Matir Asurim, which seeks to provide support and resources to the diverse array of Jewish people, and people interested in Judaism, living behind bars.
The seed for Matir Asurim—a phrase from Jewish liturgy that means “the one who frees captives”—was planted in Philadelphia in 2019, when a few individuals came together to respond to letters that prisoners had written to Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist Movement. Soon, members of the group, including Shir Lovett-Graff, then working for Reconstructing Judaism, and Jessica Rosenberg, then a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, were fielding new requests from incarcerated Jews and those seeking resources on their behalf, people who might not be considered Jewish by Orthodox standards, and therefore had trouble procuring services from existing Jewish organizations. As time passed, it became clear to Rosenberg, Lovett-Graff, and others that the volume of requests they received were symptomatic of a greater need: The US was missing an organization committed to serving the diverse needs of Jewish and Jewish-curious prisoners.
In January 2021, the group hosted their first meeting to talk about the possibility of starting a network to support incarcerated Jews as well as those seeking access to Jewish resources. Matir Asurim was born, supported by a collection of artists, activists, chaplains, and others connected to prison abolition work. Just over two years later, its initiatives now include a chaplaincy network that provides resources and support to incarcerated members, a pen pal program, a holiday mailer that includes contributions from incarcerated and non-incarcerated writers, and public education programming for people on the outside to learn more about abolitionism through a Jewish lens. The organization now sends out around 75 holiday mailers to incarcerated people across the US and Canada and has matched nearly 40 pairs of pen pals.
Rosenberg believes these resources haven’t existed in the past in part because most white Jewish communities typically don’t see themselves as connected to the issue of incarceration. Though her brother spent time behind bars when she was in her 20s, it wasn’t something her family openly discussed. “As white, wealthy Jews we didn’t talk about incarceration as something that was happening to our family,” she told me. In part, she suspects, these silences are driven by a desire to maintain a certain public image of Jews, and to avoid anything that could bring shame or embarrassment to Jewish communities. At the same time, she said, we maintain racist and classist assumptions about who is Jewish, while simultaneously knowing that the criminal legal system targets Black and poor communities. Jews may not be targeted as Jews by the prison system, she told me, but that doesn’t mean they don’t end up behind bars. “If you’ve been taught your whole life that Jews are primarily white and middle or upper class, you’re not going to say, ‘Let me go look for the Jews in prison,’” she said.
In part, building relationships across prison walls means recognizing that Jewish communities look different in prison, said Lovett-Graff, now a Boston-based divinity school student who coordinates Matir Asurim’s pen pal program. People in prison seeking access to Jewish resources come from all walks of life, they told me: They include people curious about Judaism, multifaith Jews, as well as Jews by choice who have not been through a formal conversion process. “I have not converted to Judaism primarily because I have not been afforded the guidance to do so,” Jones told me. Completing the formal conversion process is also complicated by the fact that it is nearly impossible to access a mikveh, a ritual bath used for conversion, behind bars.
Since scarcity shapes every aspect of life behind bars, incarcerated people are also moved to seek out whatever resources they can, which sometimes means appealing to religious groups. The person who helps provide religious services on Rikers Island (who is not a member of Matir Asurim) told me that detainees there can choose to affiliate with one of four religions: Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, or Catholicism. This means that people might find themselves choosing Judaism because they’re curious about the religion, or because they like the Jewish services better, or because Judaism resonates with them on a spiritual or cultural level. “I don’t think our outside community knows how to start wrestling with these questions of who we include . . . It’s not that other people want to be included in ‘my’ Jewishness, but that their Jewishness is also legitimate.”
Lovett-Graff agreed that centering people who are incarcerated can change our perception of who is Jewish and who is interested in Judaism. Similarly, they said, doing the work to support incarcerated Jews can help create change from the inside out: “The wider we build Jewish community, the more we can expand ourselves.” In interviews, non-incarcerated members of Matir Asurim described the spiritually generative experience of studying alongside Jews behind bars, and how celebrating Passover on the inside or davening there on Yom Kippur challenged and deepened their religious practice. Matir Asurim frames this work not as “charity work” but rather as a kind of interdependence and mutual aid. “All people are holy, and all people have Torah to share,” Rosenberg told me.
One person who has appreciated this attention is Jarod Jones. After getting turned down by other Jewish groups, he got connected to Matir Asurim, which enabled him to continue the Jewish learning he sought. “The information they sent to help me learn about the Jewish way of life, religion, and culture was all I asked for, all I wanted,” Jones said. The experience gave him hope after the previous rejections. “Incarceration has allowed me to see the best and worst of humanity when it comes to Judaism,” he said. On one side, he has been exposed to the reality of antisemitism, as well as to the existence of racism within the Jewish community against Black Jews. “On the other side of the spectrum,” he said, “there are real genuine people who have embraced me. There are still good people in this world who are doing things the right way, out of love.”
Aviva Stahl is an award-winning investigative reporter who’s been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, Wired, Buzzfeed News, and Jewish Currents. She’s also a registered nurse. Her current work focuses on how politics and power shape healthcare access in vulnerable communities, including among trans people and those living behind bars.