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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Chaplaincy Program for Jewish Inmates Faces Uncertain Future

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

For the past five years, chaplain Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick has been counseling Jewish inmates at three Los Angeles County jails. Last year, a second chaplain, Deborah Schmidt, was hired, adding chaplaincy coverage for the estimated 100 or so Jews in correctional facilities. But with the recent end of their grant provided by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Erlick, Schmidt and their partner, Dr. Joel L. Kushner of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), are worried about this program’s future.

“People often ask, ‘There are Jews in jail?’ Yes, there are,” Erlick said. “In a nutshell, these are people whose lives have completely, utterly fallen apart.”

Erlick provided the Journal with a few inmate profiles. One person, homeless after her family kicked her out for being transgender, has been in jail (on the gay and transgender floor of the facility) for at least a year. Another man, involved in a hit-and-run accident resulting in a motorist’s death, has been in jail for two years awaiting trial. Erlick noted “how grateful they are to the Jewish community for caring about them. I know that this leads them to reconnect with their families and communities, with Beit T’Shuvah and other Jewish support organizations, and with hope.”

In 2017, Erlick and Schmidt — both of whom are board certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains — saw 835 inmates in three facilities, Century Regional Detention Facility (L.A. County’s women’s jail), Twin Towers and Men’s Central Jail, Kushner said. There also were another 130 “attempted visits,” meaning a chaplain arrived for a requested meeting and the inmate wasn’t there, didn’t want to come out, or guards were unavailable to escort the inmate to the meeting. Another 328 inmates requested meetings last year, “but because of our lack of capacity, they were never able to see a Jewish presence before they were transferred or discharged,” Kushner said. One inmate submitted no fewer than 25 requests before she was able to meet with Schmidt.

The process of gaining access to the correctional facilities is intensive. Potential chaplains — volunteers from the correctional facilities’ perspective — need to pass a background check before being permitted to go on accompanied visits with an approved chaplain. Unescorted access requires six months of shadowing an approved chaplain, after which that chaplain can recommend a status upgrade to the Religious and Volunteer Services Unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

“People often ask, ‘There are Jews in jail?’ Yes, there are. In a nutshell, these are people whose lives have completely, utterly fallen apart.” — Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick

Erlick originally was hired by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California (BRSC), an independent nonprofit organization with offices in the Federation building. After the BRSC was absorbed into Federation, Erlick said, the program was shifted to Federation’s Caring for Jews in Need Committee. Kushner, director of HUC-JIR’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, provided nonprofit status for the program and applied for grants.

Approximately 95 percent of the two-year Federation grant of $41,000 went to pay chaplains’ salaries for 50 hours a month; the rest covered special holiday-related food and books. At the end of the grant period in December 2017, Kushner was told the grant would not be renewed.

“The Federation isn’t a funder,” Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson said. “We partner with organizations on our priorities.”

Sanderson said Federation has been moving out of chaplaincy over the past few years after “a thoughtful, strategic discussion” that included considering the presence of other organizations that do related work, naming Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish addiction recovery center on Venice Boulevard.

“We only have so many resources. People need to understand that the Federation is very focused on our priorities and can’t be in every single area,” Sanderson said. He named those priorities as vulnerable seniors and Holocaust survivors, people with special needs, and supporting those who struggle with self-sufficiency. “We’re solidly in those three areas of need and want to make an impact.”

Another organization, the Chabad-run Aleph Institute, also refers local inmates to Rabbi Yankee Raichik, a Jewish chaplain for the Los Angeles Department of Corrections, who works independently of Schmidt and Erlick but shares inmates’ names and requests with them. He told the Journal that he helps the male inmates put on tefillin — once through the bars of a jail cell. He also shares words about the weekly Torah portion, arranges for holiday observances such as lulav and etrog for Sukkot and megillah reading for Purim, distributes reading material and does “a lot of counseling.”

“I have a goal of seeing every Jewish inmate once a week,” he said, “a goal I’ve never accomplished because there’s an issue somewhere and someplace, but that’s my fantasy.”

While some inmates have the appearance of people you’d sit next to in synagogue, others challenge assumptions about what Jews look like. Inmates of color, those raised in Jewish foster homes, those who have tattoos — or names that don’t sound Jewish — might be assumed to be not Jewish and therefore ineligible for Jewish chaplaincy services.

“Other organizations may say, ‘We would see everyone,’ ” Kushner said. “Yet my chaplains tell me that some inmates are not seen because they have been determined to not be Jewish. Our chaplains have a different opinion, so I guess it comes down to how you define the question of who is Jewish.”

Without funding, the future for the chaplains is uncertain. Kushner is compiling a case for funding, to aid in pitching potential funders. The project still needs a 501(c)(3) tax-emempt organization to receive donations and pay employees, but Kushner is willing to step aside if a new leader emerges. He just wants the project to continue.

“I want the two chaplains to continue to have employment and inmates to have this vital life-saving service continue. It’s a lifeline to these people who aren’t treated like human beings,” Kushner said. “They can’t speak for themselves, so who speaks for them? It’s a powerful question. Who’s more in need than Jews in jail?”

Or as one inmate wrote to Erlick: “Lost and forgotten are we. The wayward and the downtrodden. But we are able to see a glimmer of hope and compassion through your outreach to us! Please don’t allow anyone to take you away from us, please. Without you, we would be totally lost.”

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