The words “Yom Kippur” and “Hillel” are not usually associated with prison and incarceration, but 18 University of Maryland students spent this past Yom Kippur in correctional facilities.
They did not fall afoul of the law; rather, these students elected to spend the Day of Atonement providing support and fellowship to Jewish inmates serving prison sentences in Petersburg, Virginia; Allenwood, Pennsylvania; Butner, North Carolina; and Alderson, West Virginia. The program is a partnership between Maryland Hillel and the Aleph Institute, which provides services to Jewish inmates and their families. It was a transformational experience for the students and Jewish inmates alike.
“On Yom Kippur, we come in suits and nice clothing hiding away our sins and poor actions throughout the year, but I believe that praying with a community that can’t hide away these sins through their clothing was humbling,” said Aaron Yitzhaky, a senior from Potomac, Maryland. “Hearing the inmates talking about living up to their sins and acknowledging their crimes was enlightening to the fact that sometimes we need to look introspectively and not only take the blame, but amend our actions and live up to them.”
This was not merely a social justice experience for students, but a deeply religious one as well. “I have gone through the motions of following Yom Kippur davening (prayer service) without thinking much of the meaning behind the prayers,” said William Barry, a sophomore from New Hampshire. “This year, as I led davening and discussions, I was challenged to find the deeper meaning. With the context of many prayers, I cannot think of a more meaningful place to experience the holiday than in a prison.”
Maryland Hillel has built up a sustained social justice program: running numerous “alternative break” trips to local and international destinations, addressing issues such as inner-city living, homelessness, food security, and more. Year-round service learning programs facilitate students going into the local community to volunteer their time. For example, Maryland Hillel students provide mentorship to students in at-risk school communities.
Talia Orencel, Maryland Hillel’s director of social justice and engagement, noted that we readily speak of people living in silos, and surrounding themselves with homogeneity. “The beauty of my job is that every day I work with students who are not only willing to engage with the ‘other’ but find such meaning and value from the experience,” she said.
Orencel and other members of Hillel’s staff spent several weeks preparing students for their prison encounter (as they do for all of Hillel’s service learning programs). The preparations were far-reaching and included logistics — like hiring RVs (which the students slept in) and sourcing Torah scrolls for them to take to prison — and planning services and discussion materials. There was also the educational component of preparing students for the experience they were about to have and debriefing them after the encounter.
“Judaism is at its best when it is brought to bear on the real and troubled world around us. Ours is not merely a tradition of ritual and prayer, but one of values and real purpose,” said Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel.
Experiences like these were designed to have a lasting and transformational impact. None of these students will ever regard Yom Kippur in the same light. And, as for the inmates, one individual affectionately dubbed “The Rabbi” thanked the students, tears flowing from his eyes, for spending time with prisoners. He asked the students to come back — but only as guests though, never as inmates.
By Elan Burman