Rabbis Web site offers advice to prison-bound Jews

A Jew who is about to enter prison — or those would like to know what life "inside" is like for a Jew — need only peruse Loschak's Web page "Jews in Prison" (http://www.sbchabad.org/sbchabad/prison/). The Web site also provides guidelines for practicing Judaism while behind bars.

"Unfortunately, Jewish inmates more often than not are the forgotten members of our community," Loschak said in a recent telephone interview. While maintaining a regular congregation, Chabad of Santa Barbara, the 45-year-old Loschak visits prisons around the country every Thursday and every other Monday. He most often visits facilities in nearby Lompoc.

"If [Jews] are in prison, they get written off or forgotten. But they're still Jewish and they're human beings and they need help. We have an obligation to care," the rabbi said.

Chapter headings on the Web site include "How to Cope in Prison," "What to Expect and Not Expect," "Facilities," "Anti-Semitism," "Practicing Judaism in Prison" and "What Does One Do in Prison?"

"If one remembers that the only thing being imprisoned is the body, not the mind and soul, then one can rise above the physical limitations and hardships of incarceration," Loschak writes.

"There are many stories told about Czarist Russia and Jews being imprisoned. In these prisons Jews suffered under the worst imaginable circumstances. What kept these Jews going?…Ultimately, people respect others who hold true to their convictions."

Fifteen years ago Loschak, originally from Australia, began visiting California prisons sporadically as part of his regular work with Chabad. Soon he was traveling all over, sometimes visiting inmates at Santa Rita in Dublin.

"The Jewish religion has unique needs not found in other religions," Loschak said, "because it encompasses morning to night."

His Web page addresses such needs with common-sense advice, including advising those en route to prison to plan ahead.

"If it is really important to someone to have strictly kosher food," Loschak writes in one chapter, "the judge should be told before the sentence. The judge can then instruct the appropriate prison that they will be receiving a Jewish inmate who has special dietary needs. These needs will sometimes be accommodated with pre-cooked kosher meals that are sealed, similar to the kosher food served on airlines."

Likewise, paperwork must be filled out in advance if the prisoner is to observe the Sabbath and celebrate Passover.

Loschak added that a main reason he created the Web page was to help dispel misconceptions about prison. There is no such thing as a country-club prison, even in the most minimum-security facilities. But prison is also not as bad as some movies make out.

"Not everyone in prison is evil," Loschak writes in the chapter called "What to Expect and Not Expect."

"Just because someone is incarcerated does not automatically mean that they committed some heinous crime and are about to continue their alleged terrible deeds. Likewise, he said, prison officials are not evil."

To sort the good inmates from the bad ones, Loschak writes, "the best advice is to keep one's eyes and ears very open. Very soon one will learn who is who and who can be a true friend. Just like there are some people `on the street' looking to take advantage of an unsuspecting person, so too in prison. The major difference is that when that happens in society, we can always try to stay away from that person; in prison that is very difficult to do."

In his Web page and while dealing with prisoners, he maintains a nonjudgmental approach. "My goal is to help once someone is about to go to prison or a family member goes or a friend. I never ask anyone there what they did to get there. It's not my business, and they've suffered enough. They're in prison."