Jews answer pleas of women inmates

After Jewish inmates at a women's prison in the East Bay decried the lack of outreach from the Jewish community, individuals, synagogues and one foundation have stepped forward to answer their pleas.

Offerings include volunteer visits, a literature course, counseling, monetary donations and a Jewish table covering.

The inmates' pleas to be included in the Jewish community were reported in a March issue of the Jewish Bulletin.

In the article, four of some 20 Jewish women at Dublin's Federal Correctional Institution said they felt forgotten by the Jewish community. Meanwhile, Christian and Muslim groups meet regularly with other inmates and hold religious retreats inside the compound.

"We have a rabbi, but the other groups have others who come in and it means so much to the women," prisoner Sara Jane Moore was quoted as saying.

Moore is serving a life sentence for her 1975 attempt to assassinate President Ford in San Francisco.

While some in the Jewish community view the crimes as disgraceful, the prison's visiting rabbi, Joanne Heiligman, points out that many of the penitent prisoners have taken up Judaism since their incarceration, some for the first time. For many prisoners, religion is the first step in a return to a lawful lifestyle.

Readers of the Bulletin got the message loud and clear. Jews from all over the Bay Area and from as far as Mendocino contacted Heiligman and the prison to get involved.

Richard Goldman, president of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund in San Francisco, presented the newspaper article to his staff, saying, "Let's do something to help," reported Brenda Drake, foundation spokeswoman.

Goldman earmarked $2,500 to buy Jewish materials for the prison. The sum was sent to the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay to be allocated and presented to the prison.

Prison officials are reviewing policies to determine whether to accept the grant, according to Heiligman. Neither of the pastors who head the prison chaplain's office was available for comment.

On the North Coast, members of the Mendocino Jewish Community congregation thought it would be nice to assemble a decorative table cover for the prison's non-denominational chapel.

Currently, Christian groups have decorative coverings for the altar but there is little in the way of accessories for Jewish services or holiday celebrations.

Fabric artist and Mendocino congregant Sandy Berrigan had once tailored a community chuppah for her synagogue. She was called on again to craft the prison bimah cover.

Heiligman says much more than the cover is still needed in Dublin. Contemporary Jewish texts top the inmates' wish list as many of the books in the prison library are old and outdated. Also needed are videos, Hebrew language tapes and Jewish ritual objects, she said.

Yet, as a contractor for the prison, the rabbi is prohibited from soliciting for the inmates. And all charitable donations must be channeled through prison offices.

Heiligman noted that several volunteers have been visiting Jewish inmates regularly since the Bulletin article appeared. Others are waiting in the wings to help. However, if the rabbi pursues plans to organize a Jewish retreat for the inmates, she will need even more volunteers.

Some proposed volunteers have their own ideas about tzedakah.

Ben Hollander, an instructor at Chabot Community College in Hayward, is seeking to visit the inmates once a week to teach a course on the literature of the Holocaust, a subject he has taught at the University of San Francisco.

Sarah Comerchero of San Francisco has been active with a number of human rights causes since she retired and would like to develop a visiting relationship with some of the inmates in Dublin. Other individuals have expressed similar wishes.

In Palo Alto, members of the social action committee at Congregation Kol Emeth also have plans to contribute, according to committee member Betty Fellows.

However, not all requests to help were met enthusiastically by prison officials. Blanche Turitz of the Contra Costa chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women said she was discouraged by officials from sending books — which can be used to smuggle contraband to inmates — or from getting involved at all. Generally speaking, such offerings are not prohibited by prisons.

Turitz was told by disheartened NCJW board members to abandon the cause.

Jody Reiss, a counselor at Jewish Family and Children's Services in the East Bay, wanted to exercise her social work skills as a volunteer. She's begun meeting with small groups at the prison monthly to shmooze about Jewish identity and Yiddishkeit.

"I hadn't done any volunteer work for 15 years because all my energy has been working with people with AIDS," Reiss said.

The counselor felt she could somehow make a difference. She said she was not dissuaded by the prison officials' indifference, even when the bureaucratic red tape bungled some of her visits. Other willing volunteers have shared similar accounts.

"I can't just walk in," Reiss said. "I have to be escorted and everything I do [with the inmates] has to be timed."

Before her initial visit, Reiss was briefed on grounds procedures. She is scrutinized for security clearance every time she enters the compound. Despite all the photographing and fingerprinting, she said she's still waiting for an ID badge.

During one such visit, after driving an hour to Dublin and enduring the lengthy security questioning, she said her meeting with inmates was curtailed to 15 minutes. The prison was behind schedule for the day. Reiss developed a migraine and later got a traffic citation inside the compound for rolling through a stop sign.

"My dad said, `Why are you doing this?' and I said, `What do you mean?'"

"Some of the inmates have fought for much of this. They want High Holidays and want to attend a synagogue and they keep fighting," she said. "So I can fight a little bit."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.