Kosher food is a luxury that in today’s day and age, we often take for granted. Though today one can reach the furthest corners of the world and find gourmet kosher food, there are some places—such as federal and state prisons—where kosher food is hard to come by. Until 2000, kosher food was considered an unheard of commodity in prisons, with government safety and dietary regulations making it almost impossible to attain. Even today, with the demand for kosher food in prisons higher than ever—well over 4,000 inmates throughout the country—and with government funding making kosher food available to a large amount of prisons around the country, it is still an uphill battle.
In 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed, giving Jewish inmates throughout the country the right to receive kosher food. But for religious advocates working in the prison systems leading up to and immediately following this motion, the fight for kosher food was a constant struggle. “My job was to lobby for Jewish inmates and make sure they were getting the food they deserve,” shared a former employee of the Aleph Institute in Miami, Florida. “We faced many legal battles in trying to bring kosher food to the mainstream. My job was to write formal complaints to the wardens, as well as the Federal Court System for each individual inmate that requested but did not receive kosher food.” The meals the inmates receive come precooked and sealed as per prison rules and for safety purposes. “Many of the inmates wanted kosher food because they believed it was safer—the kosher part was just an added bonus.”
Being a chaplain is not always, but often, a full time job. The job not only requires those in service to offer religious programs, guidance, and a listening ear, but also to stand as an advocate for the inmates. For Rabbi Yochanan Friedman, shaliach to S. Cruz, California, this is a job that requires his undivided attention for over twenty hours a week. “Most of my day in the facility revolves around visiting with the inmates. Some of them are death row inmates. They spend their days in remorse, trying to make amends for their mistakes. That’s what I am there to help with.” A large portion of Rabbi Friedman’s job is also spent securing and checking the kosher food that is brought into facility. “The food comes in prepackaged, I just have to make sure that they don’t tamper with it in the process.” Kosher food is mandated by the central courts of California—if a Jewish inmate requests kosher food, they are required to receive it by law. In addition to three prepackaged meals a day, Jewish inmates are entitled to two kosher banquets a year, which are usually held before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. “We hold a mock seder every year, and we teach the inmates how to daven for each Yom Tov.” Every morsel of food that passes through the prison gates must come sealed and prepared. Though the food resembles an airplane meal, the inmates are always overjoyed to receive it. “They believe it tastes better than the prison food. It also gives them a sense of peace, knowing that at least they’re able to keep one mitzvah.”
For volunteers at prisons and correctional facilities throughout the country, planning events for Jewish holidays begins months in advance. Everything from the food to entry permits must be approved in writing beforehand by the warden of any given facility. “I’d file the paperwork for every Yom Tov at the same time,” shared Mrs. Mussy Posner, who frequented a women’s correctional facility in Upstate New York for three years in a row. Mrs. Posner would visit the facility for Chanukah and Purim to add a bit of light, joy, and spirit to the holidays. “Everything I brought had to be packaged and bought from a store. Homemade doughnuts were definitely not allowed. In my case, the warden and the chaplain of the facility were easy to work with. They saw how much of a difference it made to the women in their facility to celebrate the holidays.” Volunteers visit over three hundred prisons and correctional facilities country wide each year, instilling a sense of joy and happiness into the holidays. “Some of the women I met in the facilities had celebrated Pesach their entire lives, while some had never seen matza or heard megillah before,” Mrs. Posner shared. “It was incredibly special to experience the chagim through their eyes.”
For Jewish inmates across the country and throughout the world, the lobby for kosher food is about more than the right to a religious diet; it connects them to their roots and to a heritage that many left outside of prison walls. Even for those without a formal Jewish background or education, any source of Judaism has become something they fight for wholeheartedly. For them, kosher meals are about more than just what they consume; it’s about what it represents.