Prisoner’s Diet Sparks ‘Who Is A Jew?’ Debate

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A former New Jersey prisoner’s demand for kosher food has triggered a debate over “who is a Jew.”

At issue: Must a prisoner prove that he is Jewish in order to get kosher food and, more importantly, who gets to decide — the individual, the state, or an outside religious authority?

Thomas Feldheim was being held earlier this year in the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center as he awaited extradition to North Carolina on a 2008 charge of ‘abducting’ a 13-year-old girl.

While being held in the North Brunswick jail, Feldheim requested kosher meals. Corrections officials sought advice from Rabbi Mendy Carlebach, director of the Chabad of North and South Brunswick and chaplain at the corrections center.

“The rabbi asked Feldheim if his mother was Jewish and he said, ‘No, but my father is Jewish.’ So the rabbi went back to the correction center and said, ‘No, he is not Jewish,’ and the correction center denied Feldheim’s request for kosher meals,” said Katie Wang, spokesperson for the ACLU of New Jersey.

Under Halacha, traditional Jewish law, a person is Jewish by birth only if his or her mother is Jewish.

Carlebach’s version of the story is slightly different.

“I don’t recall telling anyone they are not Jewish,” he said in a July 11 phone interview. “I do recall being asked by the prison what makes someone Jewish. I said clearly by halachic facts it is someone born to a Jewish mother or who converted according to Halacha. I do not investigate anyone’s background.”

After Feldheim application was rejected, the inmate asked the ACLU of NJ to intervene on his behalf. Alexander Shalom, ACLU of NJ’s policy counsel, handled Feldheim’s case.

“Decisions about religious affiliation are deeply personal, and it is not up to the state to determine whether a person’s beliefs are sincerely held,” Shalom told NJJN. “The state should have no role in deciding if a person is sufficiently religious. The constitution forbids the state or its designated rabbi from determining whether Mr. Feldheim is Jewish enough.”

Shalom drafted a complaint in April 2011 seeking kosher food for Feldheim.

“We said to the county, ‘We were going to file a lawsuit’ and they said, ‘Hold on, let’s see if there is something we can do short of a lawsuit.’ By the next day, they remedied the situation,” Shalom said.

Feldheim received kosher food until two months later, on June 20, when he was sent back to North Carolina to stand trial for rape. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment as they prepare for a court date next month.

‘Is he sincere?’
Carlebach’s issue with someone’s religious identity, he said, focuses on different aspects of observance. “I have no problem with people getting kosher food if they are not Jewish,” he said. “The only issue I would have is if someone considers himself Jewish and how that may affect other people who are Jewish. One example is a minyan. If they are going to be counted and people there are relying on them to be Jewish, that I may have a problem with.”

Feldheim’s attorney said he was pleased that the issue was resolved without a court battle.

“We think this is a rare case which impacted both Mr. Feldheim’s free exercise of his religion, but also impacted the establishment clause of the First Amendment. What you had was the county endorsing one sect of Judaism,” said Shalom.

Among the major Jewish denominations, only the Reform movement considers children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. Chabad is an Orthodox movement.

Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee, said the ACLU applied a proper interpretation of the separation of church and state.

“The ACLU’s position is certainly reasonable. So is the position of the chaplain, who says, ‘You can’t make me accept somebody as Jewish,’” said Stern.

“In this case it is relatively easy. The only test the state ought to make is ‘Is he sincere?’ It is not the state’s business to police this. It doesn’t matter whether he is Jewish or not. It is whether he has a sincere religious belief that he needs kosher food,” said Stern. “It should not depend on whether the rabbi thinks he’s Jewish.”

(Source: NJ Jewish News)

12 COMMENTS

  1. If his MOTHER is Jewish or he converted according to Halacha by a recognized Torah obsevant court then there is no question: He IS Jewish.

    If he says that his father is Jewish then he is NOT Jewish no matter how many times he was ‘Bar-Mitzvah’d’!

    Let the phonies deal with him/her. The Reforms & Conservatives make up their own laws but they don’t practice Judaism.

  2. Just because a Jew did something wrong and landed in jail, does not mean that he is now absolved of keeping all the commandments.A Jew in jail still has to eat kosher. Of course that is if he is really Jewish, by birth or conversion.

  3. Basmelech, it’s obvious from the article that it was NOT a Jew who committed a crime, rather a non-Jew born to a Jewish father who thinks he is Jewish and figured he could probably get a tastier meal if he requested kosher food. Maybe he will actually become closer to Yiddishkeit while in prison, as the prisoners who develop a relationship with the chaplain of their “chosen” faith often have more privileges than the average prisoner, but by then he will hopefully come to realize that unless he undergoes a kosher giyur, he is a goy.

  4. He got a ruling from the reform movement that he is Jewish. The only problem is the reform movement believes that Jews have no requirement to eat kosher.

  5. It should be pointed out that the only Rabbi mentioned in this story is Chabad.

    I personally feel that the State of New Jersey (or any other) should not have a stake in deciding who is or is not Jewish, just as I would not want the State to decide what is or is not kosher. That way lies a very large can of worms.

  6. Of course the ACLU is only getting involved because he’s not a real jew. If he were a real jew who was denied, the ACLU would stay far.

  7. Rabbi Carlebach is the prison chaplain, which is a position that many Chabad shluchim hold both for outreach and to supplement their very unsteady income. Therefore, he is indeed the one whom the state should ask for advice in such matters.

    The state has every right to root out fraudsters who want kosher meals because they are better or served faster. Keeping in mind that most prisoners are sociopathic, that is probably what motivated this non-Jew to request kosher food.

  8. Nechomah (#3) – your comment that Thomas Feldheim “…figured he could probably get a tastier meal if he requested kosher food…” is pure comnjecture on your part, not supported by anything in the article.

    ZachKessin (#6) – Au contraire. Feldheim was being held in a county detention facility under the oversight jurisdiction of the New Jersey Department of Corrections…the government was feeding him, and the government had do determine whether or not to consent to his request for Kosher food. The goverment’s decision to base that determination on the “authenticity” of underlying religious conviction is proper…how to get to that answer is a conundrum faced by any correctional system in this country, and sometimes by the military.

    That said, you can no more expect the State to base their opinion al pi Halacha, than you can expect them to base it on what you and see as Conservative or Reform nonsense…the State is neither a Frum nor a Conservative organization.

    All the State can do is base the decision on the inmate’s self identification with a “faith,” supported then by some statement from recognized clergy of that faith that the inmate’s position is consistant with tenets of the faith.

  9. However, so long as the food consists of bread, water, macaroni and a single hot dog Shabbos morning, it is OK with me that a non-Jew who abducted a 13 year old girl gets kosher food.