Bar mitzvah celebrations behind bars brings warmth to imprisoned souls

HIGHLAND PARK, N.J.– The invitation-only ceremonial celebration was to be held in a room on the first-floor of the stark-looking building at Cass Street and Route 129 in Trenton. The affair was to be attended by a half-dozen residents, plus 15 to 20 visitors from the outside.

Included among them were 10 who were to comprise a minyan for this special ceremony.

It was in this first-floor North Compound Visit Hall, a little after 9 a.m. when Lt. Thomas Lach spoke into his hand-held microphone.

"Bring the bar mitzvah celebration out. West Compound, I need the bar mitzvah celebration," was the message heard on the intercom. In a few short moments, the khaki-clad residents, aka inmates, entered the room. Five of them were about to be celebrate their bar mitzvah in this first-floor room in the New Jersey State Prison, Trenton.

"I come here frequently and this idea came up. This is the first time," said Rabbi Dovid Dubov.

Dubov, who heads Chabad Lubavitch of Mercer County, headquartered in Princeton, is a volunteer rabbi at the maximum-security facility.

"One [inmate] said he never had a bar mitzvah. 'How would you like one?' I asked him. 'Sure,' he said. I started to inquire. We finally arranged it. Some of these men will be getting out in due time. They need some guidance and direction in life. The bar mitzvah is one of those steps."

A couple of the Jewish inmates on this day wanted to renew their bar mitzvah vows.

The Trenton inmates, according to Robert H. Burns, are among 66 Jewish inmates in New Jersey state prisons and 100 in the federal system. Burns is prisoner services coordinator for the Aleph Institute of Surfside, Fla., which keeps track of such matters and caters to the Jewish prison population.

Among those seated in the visiting room-turned-sanctuary, awaiting the recent ceremony, was Jim Storozynsky, No. 240162. He was not one of the celebrants, but his eyes were focused on his prayerbook, dashing back and forth from the Hebrew to the English translation, as he tried to follow the service being conducted by the rabbi.

It was a ceremony for which, under Orthodox law, he was technically ineligible.

"My father was Jewish, my mother wasn't," Storozynsky said.

But that has not deterred him from worshipping at Jewish services during the 10 years he has been there. "I've been going to services for a long time," he said.

Raised in Lakewood and Toms River, N.J., the 30-year-old Storozynsky is serving a 30-to-life sentence following a 1989 homicide conviction.

"The problem with me is it's hard to be converted in here," he lamented.

But that didn't deter him on this day, either.

"I wanted to celebrate with them," he said of his fellow inmates.

The memorable morning began when Dubov and Bob Pilshaw, a member of Dubov's congregation, arrived carrying a Torah. It was placed carefully on a table in the lobby. Then came boxes of kosher food and drink for the post-ceremony celebration. The boxes were moved into a first-floor office to be inspected by correction-department personnel before being allowed into the visit hall. Dubov looked toward the opposite end of the lobby. He waved.

"Hello, how are you?" he inquired of a dark-complexioned gentleman, dressed in Muslim garb. "I haven't seen you in a long time." Imam Abdul Raheem Al-Mutazzim responded with a wave and smile. He walked over. Dubov invited him to the upcoming ceremony.

"I've never been to a bar mitzvah before," said the clergyman, who has been ministering to the Islamic inmates for about 11 years. "I've just heard jokes about it on TV."

Al-Mutazzim was moved, he said afterward.

"It was an enlightening experience. You always benefit by learning something you didn't know before, even though I couldn't understand the Hebrew. Anyone who prays to God, you can relate to that."

One by one, members of Dubov's minyan entered the building. Some were members of his congregation, some not. George Hyman was in the latter category. "I'm not part of his organization," he said. "But I believe in what he [Dubov] does."

Hyman and the others — including a handful of members of the press — underwent a checking-in process, under the watchful eye of the Rev. Samuel K. Atchison, supervisor of chaplaincy services, who was flitting back and forth, making certain all documentation and clearances were, well, kosher — in order.

Eventually, the entire contingent, about 25 in all, filed into the bar mitzvah room, after going through a metal detector and being patted down. The first action inside the makeshift sanctuary was the setting up of a makeshift mechitzah to separate two women press members from their male counterparts and the others.

Then, Dubov and company began assisting the soon-to-be-bar mitzvah prison inmates with their tefillin and tallitot. In a few moments, following preliminary prayers, the rabbi summoned the five celebrants to the bimah, where they made a collective blessing over the Torah. Since it was not the Sabbath, the haftarah was not read.

Storzynsky joined his fellow inmates at the bimah, but did not participate in the blessing.

For Dubov and his once-upon-a-time prospective bar mitzvah celebrants, the whole process started a while back.

"We had classes going on for seven years," Dubov said. "I've been giving them books. We do Hebrew, but the bulk of the time we really focus on discussion, building up their feelings about Judaism and their Jewish identity, helping them with their problems."

Some of them read and understand Hebrew, some don't, he added.

"This is a way to reach out to them in a positive way. No job is too big, no Jew is too small."

Sonny Spada was one of the celebrants.

"I was bar mitzvahed at Mount Sinai in Newark," said the 42-year-old, who is serving a 50-year term for first-degree kidnapping. "I kind of got away from religion, unfortunately. It's important to keep it going. There's not enough of us in here."

It was a sentiment shared by Craig F. Szemple, also 42, incarcerated since 1994 and serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. "We're a tight-knit group," he said. "There are so few of us here we have to stick together." It's the camaraderie and fellowship with his Jewish brothers that keeps him going, he added.

"It's something I feel in my heart," said William Engel, 55, a native of Austria and onetime resident of Hackensack, who is serving life for first-degree murder.

"It brings a whole new meaning for me as a Jew," said 51-year-old, pony-tailed Morey L. Marcus, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. The fifth bar mitzvah celebrant was John Brounsky, serving 20 years for sexual assault. He did not want to be interviewed.

"Everyone felt wonderful," Dubov said a day after the ceremony. "They were so moved. It was a special event in their lives."

That was a theme upon which Szemple elaborated following the bar mitzvah ceremony. Seated at a corner of a food-laden table set up in front of a concrete block wall adorned with paintings of cartoon characters and nature scenes, he formally welcomed and thanked the attendees.

"Jews that care for less fortunate Jews are only doing what the ancient and modern sages of the Torah and Talmud command them to do. These are the obermenschen of our communities," Szemple said in his talk.

"I am honored by your presence and I am even proud of each of you because today, together, we represent everything that has kept us together as a people, as a large family, for thousands of years.

"Every day in here finds us in a dark, cold vacuum of depravity and death. Today, you bring some light and some warmth into our lives…While it is true that most who are bar mitzvahed do so at an early age, is it ever too late to celebrate this ceremony, this rite of passage?…Is it ever too late to act upon the words of the Torah?

"Oy, heaven forbid."