Doing Time with the Rabbi: A Day in the Life of a Prison Chaplain

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The sky hung low as I drove upstate to the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, this past May. I had never been to a prison before. Yet, here I was, traveling to the edge of the Catskills to visit a maximum-security prison. I came to observe Rabbi Moshe Frank at work as a prison chaplain. You could say I was a little nervous.

Rabbi Frank agreed to let me accompany him on his regular Tuesday visit. I pick him up at his modest cottage in nearby Ellenville, where even the main thoroughfare looks like a side street, and take him to the job he’s loved doing for close to thirty years. A strapping man in his late fifties, as suited for football as he is for semichah, he surely shatters the inmates’ image of a rabbi. “I’m not a big believer in the correctional system,” he tells me. “Recidivism is high. They have to revisit how they could do this better.” Nonetheless, he does what he can to help the Jewish prisoners rebuild their lives, from “the inside.”

As we turn into the long driveway off Institution Road, I notice the barbed wire fence. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, the prison resembles a medieval fortress, with stone castle-like steeples and a pyramid roof. Its 900 occupants committed serious crimes—murder, assault, grand theft and other felonies. Their sentences number ten, twenty, thirty years. Some are here for life.

We enter an enclosed vestibule with steel doors and barred windows and are buzzed into the reception area. Rabbi Frank greets a stocky woman with closely cropped blonde hair standing behind a high counter, munching on an apple. “The inmates are just about done with ‘count,’ rabbi,” she says. (Inmates are counted three times daily.)

“I’ll need your ID,” she says, looking at me. She instructs me to walk through the metal detector and begins rummaging through my pocketbook. My cell phone and MP3 player are placed in a steel locker.

She stamps my hand—my ticket to the visiting area. I walk into the room and notice a few inmates, fortunate enough to have visiting family and friends, sitting with their guests at small tables. All eyes are on the rabbi and me as we pass through visiting room A to B, a more private area.

Rabbi Frank’s regulars are already there, standing at attention, waiting for us. He smiles at them. “You’re dressed so nicely—white shirts and all,” he says, impressed.

As of June 2014, a total of forty-six inmates at Eastern were listed as Jewish, though not all are halachic Jews. Only a handful of them identified themselves as Jewish when they were incarcerated; the others opted for an official “change of religion” during their imprisonment.

Rabbi Frank holds prayer services and Torah classes at the prison chapel on Sundays and Tuesdays. His prayer service is interactive; he stops at various points to discuss what the words mean. “They love it; it grabs them,” he says. “They have such a thirst. I show them that every word has a unique nuance.”

The fact that he was a criminal didn’t stop them from helping him perform mitzvot.

On Tuesdays Rabbi Frank teaches Chumash, Gemara and about the holidays. He also reserves time for private counseling. Inmates discuss their painful estrangement from their wives and children. He does what he can to facilitate contact. Sometimes he’s successful.

“I hope to teach them basic values—menschlichkeit. [Some of them] come in when they’re twenty-five and leave at forty; [do they leave] in a better place than when they came in? Yes, if they utilize their time.”

Rabbi Frank’s classes offer a window into the world of Jewish thought and faith. “We have something to look forward to,” says an inmate named Chanan, “hearing about Hashem and what He expects of us.” An average of five to ten inmates participate in the learning sessions.

The rabbi offers them a link to life on the outside. “I share what goes on in the community, the shul, with my own family,” says Rabbi Frank. “They hunger to be part of all of it in absentia.”

We settle down to speak and I ask the handful of men to share their stories.

In 2004, Chanan was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Thus far, he’s served ten—seven-and-a-half years at Clinton Correctional Facility near the Canadian border, two years at Rikers Island in Queens and, at the time of our interview, one year and three weeks at Eastern. His good behavior cut his sentence down to seventeen years.

Prior to his incarceration, Chanan, a gifted musician, played the saxophone, clarinet, trombone, bass and flute. To makes ends meet, he did accounting work by day and played saxophone in a band at night. Many of his gigs were at clubs and Catskill hotels. Eventually, the hedonistic club scene got to him, leading to a serious alcohol and drug addiction. He began attending AA meetings, where he found solace, sobriety and God. “I kept hearing all this talk about a ‘Higher Power,’” says Chanan. “I wanted to find my Jewish one.” Despite his efforts to reconstruct his life, at forty-six, a tragic confrontation put him behind bars.

With his long salt-and-pepper beard, yarmulke and gentle self-effacing manner, Chanan—who loves learning Torah—defies the image of a convict doing hard time. He studied more than 150 seforim in the past year, including Gemara as well as works on musar and halachah. Now fifty-six, he actually sees incarceration as “the greatest thing” that could have happened to him. “When I got arrested . . . I accepted it as if God was saying, ‘You want to spend twenty years with me? Okay.’

“I know Hashem is running the show and everything He does is good. If it weren’t for Hashem, the rabbi’s encouragement and Judaism, I would have given up a long time ago.”

Eastern Correctional Facility in Upstate New York. Photos: Esther Chill www.estherchill.com

Eastern Correctional Facility in Upstate New York. Photos: Esther Chill www.estherchill.com

Determined to use his time in prison constructively, Chanan pushes himself to grow in his Yiddishkeit. “If I have any hope of being an integral part of the community, I have to have something to offer.”

He devours books on Judaism. If he spots an intriguing sefer advertised in one of the Jewish newspapers or magazines he regularly receives, he writes to the authors, requesting they send him copies. Over the years, he’s amassed an impressive library, and has contacted writers in Israel, England, Canada and America, among other countries. “I’m the post office’s best customer,” he says.

Whenever Chanan encounters a Hebrew word he is unfamiliar with, he consults with Ran, a fellow inmate originally from Israel. In his mid-thirties, Ran was sentenced in 2005 to eighteen years.

Both inmates speak of their love and respect for Rabbi Frank. “We can talk to him about anything,” says Ran. “Religion, food, something that’s bothering us. Look at us, talking and laughing right now; who would believe we’re in jail? But inside we have a lot of issues to deal with. I have a son I can’t see . . . . It’s very hard.

“[Ordinarily,] I have no patience for religious material,” says Ran. “But the rabbi explains it in a clear way. He doesn’t push us.” Even while downplaying his growth in Judaism, Ran, who sports a sefirah beard, admits that he observed every fast this past year.

Ran’s parents divorced when he was young. A troubled youth, he was kicked out of yeshivah and wound up living on the streets. He moved to the United States in the mid-1990s and began to build a life. He got married, had a job, even started keeping kosher again and going to shul. Unfortunately, he stumbled. In prison almost nine years, he accepts his punishment. “If you do something wrong, even if it’s by mistake, you have to pay for it,” says Ran. “I have family and friends who support me. When I get out, I can build a life again.” After his arrest, he dropped whatever advances he had made in Yiddishkeit. However, nine months after his incarceration, he began retracing his steps. “I’ve been up and down in my life. I try to keep moving up. I get up in the morning. I pray three times a day. Baruch Hashem, I keep going. I still have a lot of work to do.”

Rabbi Frank never reads the inmates’ criminal case histories. “There’s no reason for me to know [about their pasts]. I don’t think it would benefit my relationship with them. It might color my feelings toward them. [This way, I can] treat them as my equals.”

A native of Brooklyn, Rabbi Frank, who earned a master’s degree from Yeshiva University in classical Jewish history, prefers the peace and quiet of country life to the tumult of the city. “I open the window in the morning and breathe the fresh mountain air and I hear the creek nearby. I can accomplish my errands on Erev Shabbos in a matter of minutes—post office, haircut, cleaners, last-minute shopping.” His children made different choices. They live in Manhattan, Kew Gardens Hills, Lakewood and Ramat Eshkol, Israel. “Nobody stays in Ellenville,” he says. But the chaplain remains.

Rabbi Frank began his prison visits in 1985, as the assistant to Rabbi Herman Eisner, the then-rabbi of Ezrath Israel in Ellenville, New York. When Rabbi Eisner, a concentration camp survivor who had led the congregation since 1949, retired in 1988, Rabbi Frank took over as rav of the shul. Although he left the position in 2011, he continues his chaplaincy work at both Eastern and Ulster Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility in the area.

Viewing himself more as a friend than a teacher, Rabbi Frank imparts Judaism with an easy smile and discernible respect for everyone, affording each inmate the inspiration and time he needs to grow. Time is a commodity the inmates have plenty of.

“My motive is not to make them frum,” Rabbi Frank says. “I try to be very direct in a loving way. One young Jewish inmate told me, ‘I dated a Jewish girl before and she never stood by me; she dropped me like a hot potato when she knew I was in trouble.’ I told him, ‘You can’t maintain your Judaism and be dating a non-Jewish girl, no matter how much money she sends you.’ He hasn’t come back to services.”

“If you don’t have belief in a Higher Power, you’re going to really be at a loss,” says Rabbi Frank. “God becomes very present in their lives.”

“Being more observant makes me feel better,” says Ran. “When I read Tehillim, I’m in a different world. I didn’t used to read it on the outside, only when I was in ‘the box’ [twenty-four-hour period of solitary confinement]. Because of the rabbi, I made Kiddush for the first time in my cell this past Friday. I tried to do a treaty transfer [the transferring of a prisoner from the country in which he was convicted of a crime to his home country], to do the rest of my prison time in Israel. It was denied and I got down. I try not to break in jail. It’s very easy to get broken here.”

I ask Rabbi Frank about his most memorable prison experience. He shares the following: A group of Satmar Chassidim approached him for help. They wanted to provide an inmate in solitary confinement with what he needed to make Pesach Sedarim. Since those in solitary confinement have little or no human contact, food and ritual items have to be passed through a tiny hatch in the cell door. Rabbi Frank measured the opening and gave the precise measurements to the Chassidic volunteers. They then arranged for the delivery of two custom-size Seder trays containing hermetically sealed Pesach victuals, replete with miniature matzot.

“I was taken by the fact that they would go to such lengths . . . [they] upset the routine in a matzah bakery in order to produce matzot of an unusual size,” says Rabbi Frank. “A man from Williamsburg, who had his own family, delivered it all on Erev Pesach.” After the inmate serving a life sentence died in prison, the Satmar community arranged a burial plot for him in Israel. “The fact that he was a criminal didn’t stop them from helping him perform mitzvot.”

Choosing to Change
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Rabbi Frank forms deep bonds with some of the Jewish prisoners. Recently, a superintendent called him for feedback about an inmate who was transferred to a medium-security prison and is now up for parole after twenty-five years of incarceration. “You have to be careful; you’re putting your reputation on the line if you say you know for sure the inmate will not be a further risk to society,” says Rabbi Frank. “You could speak about the good things he did and advances he made to overcome his anger, confirm that he was properly utilizing programs, helping other inmates with their education, was involved in charity drives. They want to see that the inmate has remorse for the crime he committed; that’s teshuvah from the state’s perspective.”

How does Rabbi Frank determine when teshuvah is genuine?

“You could tell by the inmates’ attitudes. I see inmates becoming resigned to the fact that they can’t continue to be belligerent or arrogant. Being locked up in a maximum-security prison could motivate one to change. One is reminded every day of his compromised state.”

The relationships Rabbi Frank forges with the inmates last long after they leave prison and reenter society. Some continue to call and write to him; the rabbi invites them to celebrate at his semachot, and they invite him to theirs.

When Chanan leaves the barbed wire behind, he’ll be sixty-four. He wants to live in a frum community, learn in a yeshivah and work as a mashgiach. He also looks forward to a “geulah meal” of corned beef, pastrami and tongue on club bread with Russian dressing and coleslaw. Until then, he hopes to continue to “feed himself spiritually” every day.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.