After several years of advocacy by Chabad leaders on behalf of Jewish inmates in New Jersey state prisons, the NJ Department of Corrections reached a landmark decision to allow inmates to light the Chanukah Menorah in prison.
Historically, Menorah lightings were prohibited in the state’s penal institutions, says Rabbi Mendy Katz,
“Obviously safety and security were the main hurdles that we had to overcome,” explains Katz, director of the Aleph Institute. Corrections officials originally demurred, citing fire hazard concerns and that inmates could use fire as a makeshift weapon.
“Through many discussions and open communication with the Department of Corrections, we were able to come to a mutual understanding.”
Roger Jacobs, an attorney in West Orange, NJ provided expert counsel to the team of rabbis throughout the legal process. “To see how far we have come is truly a testament to the commitment of both sides to work together,” he says.
According to Rabbi Avi Richler, a member of Aleph’s advocacy team and Director of Chabad of Mulica Hill in Gloucester County, NJ, this agreement is significant of a commonality between the state and Jewish leaders, who share a commitment to the forward movement and growth of Jewish life.
“We tip our hats to Commissioner Lanigan and the Governor’s office for their willingness to explore, and ultimately agree to our proposals,”said Rabbi Richler.
“The fact that our State government really cares about our concerns is comforting,” he says.
Religious services throughout the rehabilitation process for criminals have proven effective in lessening the rate of recidivism. But until now, the Menorah’s message of peace and harmony has been all but non-existent for Jewish inmates who had to make do with electric Menorahs, hardly a substitute for the Menorah’s glow.
While electric Menorah’s make for a pretty ceremonial experience, “they do not fulfill one’s religious obligation of lighting the menorah,” explains Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, Director of Chabad in Livingston. The requisite blessings on the Menorah can only be recited on real, fire Menorah.
“Menorah lightings can be a very spiritually healing experience for an inmate,” said Grossbaum.
This year, fifty-five Jewish inmates in thirteen prisons across New Jersey will kindle the lights of the Chanukah Menorah and illuminate their surroundings in prison with a message of hope for a brighter future.