Chicago Jewish News Cover Story

Jailhouse Flock

by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, Chicago Jewish News, October 18-24 2013

Eleven days out of the month, every month, Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman wakes at 4 a.m. and gets ready for a 12- to 15-hour day that might see him traveling up to 400 miles. At the end of his journey? Often, a single Jewish prisoner.

That doesn’t matter to Scheiman, who has been doing this work since he moved to Chicago in 1980. He’ll go to any one of Illinois’ more than 25 state, county and federal jails and prisons if there is even one Jew incarcerated there.

He estimates there are between 100 and 150 Jewish prisoners in the correctional system at any one time in Illinois.

Often, he does no more than sit and talk with the incarcerated person – whom he calls a client, not a prisoner. He talks, he listens, he prays, he advocates. Sometimes he reads from the Torah, other times he’ll go to bat for a prisoner who wants to have kosher meals. And his help doesn’t stop when a person is released.

Many of those he has helped say his visits were a lifeline.

They are people like Diane, who did not want her last name used in this article and who was incarcerated for years in various prisons for what she says were white collar crimes.

“He’s just the best. He doesn’t judge you – I could tell him anything and he wouldn’t be shocked. He keeps you going. I’ve been out many years and he’s been there for me the whole time. I adore him,” she says.

Sam Horowitz, a young Jewish man whose struggles with anti-Semitism at a downstate Illinois prison were detailed in a front-page Chicago Jewish News story in 2006, says Scheiman “was a vital part in my sanity. He always had my back. I respect him more than anybody else on this planet and I don’t think there is one person he has interacted with who doesn’t feel the same way.”

Horowitz has been free for three years after spending nearly nine years in prison and is doing well; he stays in touch with Scheiman and sometimes volunteers with his organization. That’s not unusual, the rabbi says.

Now Scheiman, still grieving the death of his wife, Hinda, from cancer five months ago, hopes to do even more for prisoners and former prisoners and their families and is looking to expand his organization, which he has renamed the Hinda Institute and now includes two of his sons as partners. The name, aside from honoring his wife, stands for “Helping Individuals Ascend.” That’s how he sees the job.

Rabbi Scheiman didn’t set out to be a prison chaplain, he said in a recent interview. Recently married, he came to Chicago in 1980 from his native Brooklyn as a Chabad Lubavitch emissary tasked with running the area’s Gan Israel camps. Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz had just become the head of Illinois’ Chabad organization and he needed personnel.

“I was his first hire, and when I got here I asked, what exactly do you want me to do” aside from heading the camp program, Scheiman says. “There weren’t many Lubavitchers in Chicago, so he said, why don’t you start with things that don’t cost money – give classes, speak, organize things.”

Scheiman was beginning to do that when he received a call from a Jewish man from New York whose son had gotten into trouble and was in prison in downstate Joliet. It was just before Passover.

“He asked if we could see to it that his son would have matzah and grape juice, have a Haggadah for Passover,” Scheiman says. “I started making calls, I called the prison, the (non-Jewish) chaplain and arranged to drop off matzah and grape juice. That was my first contact within six weeks of moving to Chicago.”

Slowly, he began getting more involved with Jewish prisoners, and when the rabbi who had been visiting the Cook County jail in Chicago died, he took over that task as well.

“As I was doing it, I felt a sense that this is what I should be doing,” he says.

“He was the first person to visit me when I was incarcerated. He visited me every month and he was very inspirational and forgiving. He inspires you with words – I can’t explain how he does it but he makes you feel better about yourself. He seems to be able to get past all the things that people think about people who are incarcerated and get them back in touch with who they are, what they are supposed to be, just feeling better about yourself….I don’t think I’ve ever met a person like him before. He is still my rav. I talk with him every week.” – Michael (he did not want his last name used).

There was a problem. Scheiman had no official status – “I couldn’t walk into the prison. I was sitting with the other visitors in the visiting room,” he says. He and Rabbi Moscowitz eventually met with several government officials, including then-State Sen. Howard Carroll.

“He said, ‘We have imams and priests going to visit (members of) their faith groups, why not have a Jewish one?’ ” Scheiman relates. Eventually, accompanied by much red tape, that came to pass. It meant that Scheiman had easier access to prisoners in every facility in the state and received a small stipend, along with paid mileage. (It’s not his only job; he also heads Chabad of Niles and still oversees the Gan Israel camps.)

Today, he might visit up to 25 prisons, assuming that each has at least one Jewish inmate (not always the case). One facility he goes to regularly is Cook County Jail, where, he says, out of a population of about 10,000, there are usually up to 15 Jews awaiting trial. If non-Jewish prisoners ask for his assistance or show an interest in Judaism, he will offer his services to them as well.

What he does during his visits depends almost entirely on what the inmate wants, he says. It might be anything from praying with tefillin (inmates are not allowed to keep the ritual objects in their cells for safety reasons) to delivering food for Passover to helping sort out problems by talking to family members on the outside.

“I am there first and foremost to remind them that they are a human being, they’re not just a number. That they were created by G-d, they have a purpose, they have something good inside them,” he says. “I go in with a friendly non-judgmental attitude and to them that is like a breath of fresh air. The main thing I do is go. The mere fact of someone coming in with a smile, not to judge, to lift up someone’s spirit – does it pay to travel 300 miles and spend 12 hours driving to see one Jew in a maximum security prison? Yes, when you see the face of that man or woman.”

Read more at the CJN website…

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