As prison chaplains, one of our key tasks is the advocacy work that we do on behalf of our clients.  As chaplains, we monitor that our client's religious rights are respected in accordance with American law. These rights include the permission for religious celebration, kosher and Passover food and the right to pray and put on Tefillin (phylacteries).  This often requires dealing with a cautious and often impenetrable bureaucracy, Anti-Semitism or ignorance, and working in conjunction with multiple organizations and contacts.

Most importantly, it requires the belief that Jewish observances and rights have value and a tremendous commitment to the Jewish souls who have been incarcerated and their rights. Nevertheless, we often need political and sometimes Divine intervention.

A Chanukah Story 

  For more than a decade I have brought a full Chanukah party to the Cook County Correctional Centre (CCCC)  … Following regulations, I submitted my Chanukah request in due course to the CCCC Program Services Director.  This time, I received a fax back from the office approving my request with the words "Menorah and candles" crossed out and a handwritten note reading, "Let them use electric".  The CCCC had been having a lot of turnover in their office staff and as new directors are replaced they are exceptionally cautious.

I was absolutely committed to bringing candles to the prison as I had for years. I called my contact at the prison and explained that an electric menorah is not in conformity with Jewish Law. I tried reaching some higher ups to get this mission accomplished but I was finally denied.  I began to make some contingent plans. Then it hit me, I had just attended a public Menorah lighting the night before and had met State Senator Ira Silverstein. I dialed his cell phone and surprisingly got him on the first try. I quickly explained the circumstance and he asked me to faxed him a copy of the denial with a cover sheet explaining the history of this Chanukah party as well as the safety precautions we have always taken to insure that there is no fire hazard. On the actual day of the event, I was waiting for a call from the senator to give me the update.

Logistically, Thursday morning, the day of the party, I was in a pickle. At 8:00 AM I had to be at the CCCC to prepare that evening’s party. I optimistically brought the Menorahs along but had to leave them along with my cell phone which is not permitted in the prison.

As I unloaded my supplies I made sure to bring along an extra box of Chanukah gelt. I figured that I would try to personally speak with the director and no one could accuse me of bribery with chocolate Chanukah gelt. I finally got in to the director's office and was starting to plead my case; but before I could get to the part about the latkes, the Director interrupted me and apologized for the memo and assured me that in the spirit of Chanukah he would certainly make an exception and allow the candles. I thanked him and gave him his chocolate Chanukah gelt.

When I returned to my car sure enough there was a message from the Senator explaining that he had been in contact with the Sheriff’s department and everything was taken care of. That clarified the Director’s newfound understanding. I called the Senator back and thanked him for his help.

The party was a success everyone lit the Menorah and ate the feast and we waited for all the Menorahs to extinguish and Baruch Hashem there were no fires.