Jews Behind Bars
Jewish Prisoners Face Unique Challenges, Including Antisemitism And Difficulty Obtaining Kosher Food
Evan Sherman’s life story reads like a movie script or true-life crime novel. While not proud of his past behavior, he admits to writing counterfeit checks from made-up bank accounts, accruing more than $700,000 in a span of four years. After being sentenced to a work-release program, he was caught trying to escape, resulting in an eight-year prison sentence. He was 34. While
much of the money went for drugs and alcohol, it was the thrill of the process and the danger of being caught that kept him going.
“I was an adrenaline junkie,” he said, describing how he would enter a bank dressed as a house painter, complete with paint-stained overalls, or as a grease-smeared auto mechanic to make his ruses appear authentic. The freedom he enjoyed following his release in 2007 only lasted six months. Using a vehicle provided by his sister and her husband, who had given him a job in their family business, he headed for Detroit to buy drugs. While under the influence, he drove to the Barnes & Noble bookstore then located on Telegraph Road in Bloomfield Township and slipped a note to the cashier asking her to empty the cash register.
“That [the robbery] was the most desperate thing I did in my life; it was the lowest point in my life,” he said.
He was apprehended a few miles away and charged with unarmed robbery, resulting in another prison sentence, this time for three years. During that time, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given psychiatric drugs, which stabilized his mental state. When he was released, he stayed away from alcohol and drugs until an injury required a trip to the hospital, where he was given a strong narcotic.
“For the next 15 months, I was constantly fighting an opiate addiction,” he said.
Eventually he lost the fight and ended up charging $180,000 at local retail stores using false accounts created with illegally obtained Social Security numbers and forged driver’s licenses. In one escapade, he posed as the husband of a Haitian woman whose family had been devastated by a hurricane. A sympathetic store clerk helped him select and charge thousands of dollars’ worth of designer jeans, clothing and accessories for the “victims.”
This final spree earned Sherman a two-year prison sentence, which he maintains was his last experience behind bars. Living on the edge had lost its thrill.
“It was quite a rush at first,” he said, “but the last two years in prison definitely cured that rush.”
Today Sherman, 48, is living in a group home sponsored by the Jewish mental health agency Kadima in Southfield. A talented amateur artist, he teaches an art class for fellow clients, bakes challah from scratch for weekly Shabbat dinners and performs other work as needed. He takes prescribed medication and attends group and individual therapy sessions as well as 12-step meetings. The terms of his parole require him to wear an electronic tether, which is scheduled to be removed next month.
“I have issues, and I’m fully aware of them, and they’re under control as long as I monitor them,” he said. “Now I take the time to figure everything out instead of acting on impulse.”
Sherman has made peace with his parents and is building a relationship with his daughter, a college student who lives with his ex-wife in another state.
“I’ve been gone since she was 4,” he said, “but we talk frequently now. It’s nice.”
The biggest challenge for Sherman, and for many ex-convicts, is finding a job. Most employment applications ask whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony, and an affirmative answer can be a deal-breaker.
“It’s depressing,” Sherman said. “You have to stay positive. You have a flawless interview and then you see the application with that felony question. I’m not looking for a handout or someone to do things for me — I want to work — I just need somebody to give me a break.”
Judaism Behind Bars
According to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Katz of the Florida-based Aleph Institute, which provides programs and support for Jewish prisoners and their families, there are approximately 4,000 Jewish inmates in the United States, comprising about 1.5 percent of the total prison population of 1.9 million. The numbers reported by corrections facilities are higher because no documentation is required to select Judaism as a religious preference, and prisoners are allowed to change their religious designation every six months. A desire for kosher food is a major reason why large numbers of prisoners, many with no Jewish lineage, choose Judaism as their religion of record.
While Sherman did not follow a kosher diet in prison, he led Friday night services, which included ritual hand washing, reciting the Shema and other prayers, discussing the weekly Torah portion and saying Kaddish.
“We also collected tzedakah,” he said. “People who didn’t have cash would donate bars of soap or tubes of toothpaste to give to new inmates.”
Sherman said many of the attendees were what he called “posers,” non-Jews who chose to participate. For the Jewish inmates, who often resided in different cell blocks, it was the only opportunity to get together.
Rabbi David Nelson of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park is a prison chaplain who serves on the Chaplain Advisory Committee of the Michigan Department of Corrections and was a member of the Executive Clemency Advisory Council created by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. He has made countless prison trips over the years, conducting services, leading seders and study groups, and providing spiritual guidance.
“Judaism becomes more important when people are incarcerated,” Nelson said. “They want to spend their time in a meaningful way. I’ve seen progress; they take it seriously … and continue to do well after they get out.”
Sherman said it was comforting to be with other Jews in prison, a way of holding onto something from his former life.
“I get a lot of letters from people who are interested in Judaism, searching for something,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.
She feels it is important to stay in touch with those inmates who want to maintain an ongoing connection.
“It’s very meaningful for them to know people are thinking about them while they are working toward forgiveness and repentance,” she said.
Visiting can be difficult for clergy, depending on the facility, and sending books and other resources is even harder.
“It’s easier for a lawyer to visit a client than it is for a clergy to visit a congregant,” said Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, director of the Friendship House, a program of Friendship Circle of Michigan that provides support to Jewish individuals and families struggling with alcoholism, addiction and other isolating life crises.
Aviva Gordon of Oak Park is an Orthodox woman who serves as a prison chaplain for women at the Oakland County Jail. She visits the jail every Friday, meeting new inmates and conducting study sessions and prayer groups. When possible, she brings items the prisoners have requested, such as religious books.
“I am told these reading materials make their way around the pods, and often the [non-Jewish] inmates will be surprised and saddened to hear how Jews are treated poorly, in past and present context,” said Gordon, a former sales and marketing professional who is also a volunteer divorce mediator and part-time day schoolteacher.
Her goal is to help ease the burden of incarceration through spiritual means, although she says many of the women who seek her out are not necessarily religious in their outside lives.
“While in jail,” she said, “something tugs at their Jewish core and they reach out for Jewish camaraderie.”
Anti-Semitism In Prison
One of the challenges Jewish prisoners face is anti-Semitism from other prisoners as well as guards. Declaring one’s Judaism by requesting kosher food or attending religious services leaves prisoners open to verbal attacks or worse.
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, director of the Chabad House of Greater Downtown Detroit and former Friendship House director, described a Jewish prisoner who observed the rules of kashrut at home but kept his Judaism under wraps in prison, eschewing kosher food and avoiding services or other religious activities.
“He didn’t want to deal with the perception of the other prisoners and staff,” Pinson said.
Sherman took a different approach; he literally flaunted his Judaism via prominent tattoos of the Israeli flag and his mother’s Hebrew name.
“I figured if they could wear their swastikas and other hate stuff, then I can fly my colors,” he said, adding there was some name-calling but no physical retaliation. “It was kind of like daring them to do something, but they never did.”
The guards were another story, according to Sherman. Some would find reasons to conduct a “shakedown,” entering a prisoner’s cell and searching through his belongings, often causing damage to whatever religious items were found.
“They [the guards] couldn’t openly make remarks, so they stomped on yarmulkahs and tore pages out of prayer books,” Sherman said. “It’s easy to know if someone doesn’t like you and why.”
Sherman has worked hard to overcome the negative effects of incarceration, describing prison as an “upside-down world.”
“You’re a grown man sitting in your cell, and you hear a song or you smell a smell. You remember something you used to do with your daughter, and you’re gone — you’ve lost it,” he said, “but you can’t cry or show emotion. For those of us who grew up knowing what a family is like, it weighs on you.”
Gordon said the women she visits in the Oakland County Jail complain of anti-Semitism, including proselytizing from other sects and snide remarks about the amount of money some of the Jewish inmates spend at the commissary. They are also expected to answer questions from gentile prisoners about various aspects of Judaism.
“To an extent, these women have become Jewish ambassadors, whether they like it or not. The non-Jewish women feel that those eating kosher food have all the Jewish answers,” Gordon said.
The availability of kosher food in prisons has become an issue fraught with controversy and litigation in Michigan and other parts of the country.
Federal lawsuits have been filed over the unavailability of kosher prisons meals in various states, including Michigan, Texas and Florida, where an Orthodox inmate and the U.S. Department of Justice filed parallel suits that resulted in a court order requiring Florida prisons to provide kosher meals.
Prison officials in Florida and elsewhere express concern about the high cost of kosher food, which is at least four times greater. While the percentage of prisoners who are actually Jewish is less than 2 percent of the total population, many non-Jewish inmates request kosher meals because the food is believed to be higher quality than standard prison fare, driving the costs up even higher.
In Michigan, a new prison meal program was introduced last fall, including a policy that provides vegan meals to Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities with special dietary needs. The “one-size-fits-all” vegan meals have elicited complaints from advocates for Muslim as well as Jewish prisoners.
Rabbi Katz said representatives from the Aleph Institute have met with Michigan Attorney General William Schuette and members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s staff about the issue.
“It’s a major problem in Michigan,” Katz said. “Vegan food [in the prisons] is not kosher.”
Michigan Department of Corrections officials maintain the vegan meals comply with all religious beliefs and satisfy basic nutritional requirements.
Gabi Silver, a partner at Detroit-based Cripps and Silver Law, said getting kosher food for Jewish clients in jail is an ongoing problem. Last spring, after previous requests from district court had been ignored, it took a signed order from a Wayne County Circuit Court judge to obtain kosher food for a Jewish inmate.
“I don’t know why a court order was necessary; it shouldn’t have to be that hard,” said Silver, who added that intervention by a local rabbi was necessary to obtain kosher food for another client in the Oakland County Jail.
Assisting the families of incarcerated Jews is also an important part of the work that Rabbi Hornsten and other clergy members do in relation to Jewish prisoners.
“It’s devastating when your child is sent to jail,” said Hornsten, who has counseled family members and put them in touch with others in similar situations. “It’s important for families to know they’re part of the Jewish community, that we don’t judge them and that they’re not alone.”
Evan Sherman said his family was very supportive — calling, visiting and sending money — until his last incarceration. “I burned them out,” he said. “I can’t blame them.”
After that, his father, Sheldon, cut off all contact, and his mother, Barbara, stopped visiting and sending money. The Shermans now live in Florida.
“I finally said ‘no,’” Barbara said. “I took his phone calls because I still wanted to talk to him, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to be disappointed again.”
Today Evan is on good terms with both parents, and he regrets the pain they endured as a result of his actions. He described the anguish he felt seeing the guards search his parents before they entered the visiting room.
“You just want to scream bloody murder watching your mother get frisked,” he said. “But they were willing to go through it just to see me. That meant everything.”
The Aleph Institute provides family support that includes counseling, support groups for spouses and other programs.
“For every prisoner, there is also a mother, father, wife, sister, brother or child; they are struggling socially, mentally, emotionally and financially,” Katz said.
The organization also maintains funds to assist families with visiting costs and provide summer camp experiences for children of prisoners.
“I have never had a family tell me this is a shandeh [shame],” Gordon said. “They really, really want to help their loved ones … sometimes the families do not have the emotional strength or financial means. When they contact me, I offer words of encouragement and suggestions for counseling, organizations and venues for continued Jewish learning.”
While release from prison puts an end to the horror of incarceration, freedom can also mark the beginning of a new set of problems. Finding work is difficult, and the Jewish community can be less than welcoming.
“There is not much support in the community; very few places will take them,” said Blumstein of Friendship House. “In a way, I understand, but the flip side is that people need a second chance.”
Pinson recalls an elderly man, now deceased, who was rejected by the local Jewish assisted-living facilities because of his background.
Sherman attends weekly services at The Shul in West Bloomfield, where he feels welcome and accepted, but this is not always the case in every congregation.
“From a community perspective, if someone spent time in jail, most synagogues [and congregants] will not be too excited to have them as a member,” Pinson said. “If a person is Jewish, he wants to feel safe. And we have had situations where we helped people with checkered pasts, and it backfired.”
Nelson said there is a need for a more extensive chaplaincy program and a better support system within the Jewish community at large.
Katz agrees, adding that it is going to take “a lot of education” to improve the situation.
Sherman and his family remain hopeful he will find the support he needs to get his life on track, including finding gainful employment. He has experience working in restaurants and food service, dating back to the former Pickle Barrel restaurant, and is also skilled at home improvement tasks such as painting and ceramic tile installation. He said he is not afraid of working hard and taking on new challenges.
“I have faith, as long as I don’t give in and continue to do the right things,” he said. ■
Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer