Judaism behind bars

“I call them my congregation. But whether or not they can get to chapel is another story.”

Carole Hyman is speaking about Beth Shalom, the congregation at San Quentin State Prison. For the past year, she has served as the Jewish chaplain at the Marin County prison.

In this maximum-security facility with the only death row for male prisoners in the state of California, her congregants are mostly lifers, with some condemned to be executed.

And since death row prisoners cannot attend services in the chapel, she must go to them.

Others must make their way through several security checkpoints in order to get to the chapel.

On a recent Saturday morning, four prisoners showed up to attend services in a nondescript room with a sign reading “Congregation Beth Shalom” over the door.

The same space doubles as a mosque for the Muslim prisoners; the Christian church and Native American sweat lodge are right next door. The chapels are in a courtyard just inside the prison’s black iron gates.

With its ark, Torah and tallits draped over chairs, Beth Shalom has some of the trappings of a synagogue anywhere — except for the congregants, all dressed in light-blue uniforms.

Hyman, who is petite with large glasses, wears a suede kippah around the prison. She often plays a CD with Jewish songs during services. The Torah is smaller than usual, and was donated decades ago.

Describing the size of Hyman’s congregation is difficult, because prison is not a place where Jews often want to be “out” as Jews, she said. But among those who do identify as Jews, there is a remarkable diversity.

Some formerly secular Jewish prisoners become Orthodox while in prison, and request kosher food. Then there are those who take an interest in Judaism and attend services, or take Hyman’s Bible study class, yet it’s clear they have no Jewish background and were not born Jewish.

She makes no distinction, and administers to them all.

“If an inmate tells me he wants to practice Judaism and if he’s sincere and demonstrates his commitment to it, then I consider him Jewish,” she said.

There are some 6,000 prisoners at San Quentin, and more than 600 of them are on death row. Hyman visits more than 10 Jews regularly who are condemned to die. Citing the Jewish concepts of the “yetzer ha’ra” and “yetzer ha tov” (“the impulse to do bad” and “the impulse to do good”), she said, “I haven’t met anyone here that I don’t recognize the humanity of.”

Hyman, 58, has an unusual background for a prison chaplain. Originally from Maryland, she grew up in a Reform household. She entered Ohio State University as a student, but dropped out in 1969 to move to California.

“It was a time of great turmoil in this country, and suddenly English and philosophy didn’t seem terribly relevant,” she explained.

She moved to Marin, got married and gave birth to two daughters. Only after that did she return to finish college.

Later, the family moved to Sonoma County. Though she was hardly a wine drinker, the grapevines of her environs piqued her interest. She was also interested in agriculture, so she did some preparatory classes until she could enroll at U.C. Davis. Eventually, she got a master’s degree in viticulture and enology.

She gave birth to a son in 1980, and began working in wineries — not as a winemaker, but as a chemist. “There was a great resistance to women in the wine industry then,” she said.

Nevertheless, she was able to work her way up to assistant winemaker at several wineries.

Then, in 1993, an advertisement in a trade publication caught her eye. A winery in Hungary was looking for an American consultant, as it hoped to make wine that would appeal to the American market.

Hyman’s paternal grandparents were from Hungary. She applied, and went.

At the end of her consultant gig, she traveled around the country, where the occasional ruin of a synagogue began to haunt her.

One day, toward the end of her stay, she found herself gazing up at the top of a hill, where a Star of David dominated the landscape. Once again, it was the ruins of a synagogue. The tremendous loss of Hungary’s Jews hit her hard.

“All of these abandoned synagogues, with no Jews,” she said. “I kept being told they were gone, that all there is left here of Jews is ruins. It was amazing to me. It was like it hit me in the solar plexus.”

That trip, and perhaps more specifically, that moment, sparked a journey that landed Hyman where she is today. “I had always been Jewish and believed in God, but wasn’t observant, and I wasn’t that [Jewishly] educated,” she said. “While I had grown up active in synagogue, I didn’t bar mitzvah my kids or belong to a synagogue.”

While continuing to work in the wine industry, she did research, and in 1995, she began taking classes at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She started studying Hebrew, and went to Israel to study it there.

She considered rabbinical school, but with a teenage son at home, she ruled out moving to Los Angeles, which had the nearest seminary.

“I didn’t want to enter academia, as I didn’t think I was in this for teaching. I wanted to do something spiritually oriented.”

By 2000, Hyman had pieced together a chaplaincy program for herself by taking Jewish studies courses at GTU and other courses at the Berkeley-based Pacific School of Religion, a multidenominational Christian seminary. When she obtained a master’s in divinity, she began as a chaplain at a correctional facility in Martinez.

“That I would enjoy working with prisoners was not something I knew or suspected, but somehow, I felt it was something I could do well,” she said.

Once she became board-certified, she became the chaplain at a facility in Vacaville, which she still visits once a week; the other four days she is at San Quentin.

Hyman’s inside view of the prison system has left her with some philosophical questions.

“What causes people to cross this line? And how can you heal them? We don’t know how to do that as a society. The first step is isolating them, but what can we do beyond that?”

Hyman is certain of one thing: “Rejecting and demonizing them doesn’t work.”

Hyman said much of her duties include keeping in touch with family members of inmates on the outside.

Earlier this year, she conducted a memorial service for a Jewish inmate who died.

While no Jewish prisoners have been executed while she has been there, there are Jewish inmates on death row who are in varying degrees of the appeals process.

“I have made it known that if they ask me to be with them if it should come to that, I will do that,” she said.

When asked if her being a woman was ever problematic, Hyman said she had only been treated with respect, both by Jewish and non-Jewish inmates.

That she wears a kippah is sometimes a curiosity, though.

“The prisoners appreciate that someone is here that doesn’t wish them ill in any way, and because I’m not in uniform means I’m not in an enforcing role,” she said.

The Jewish prisoners range in class and education, she said, and no generalizations can be made.

Despite how difficult her chaplaincy at San Quentin can be, Hyman said she saw her role as to help her congregants, in the best way she could.

“I’m trying to help them be alive, both psychologically and emotionally.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."