JOLIET — It’s traditional during Passover to encourage guests at the holiday dinner table to expand on the story of the ancient Jews’ liberation from Egypt by relating personal experiences of the holiday’s themes: bondage and redemption.
That’s a cinch for Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman, who for 14 years has been driving a circuit of Illinois prisons, ministering to Jewish inmates.
“After the Jews escaped from Egypt, how come they didn’t head straight for Israel instead of wandering around, exiles in the desert for 40 years?” Scheiman asked three inmates gathered in the chapel at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security state prison about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
It was the week before Passover, and Scheiman, 38, was making his prison rounds, dropping off boxes of matzo and frozen, kosher TV dinners so his congregants could mark the holiday with a behind-bars seder, or Passover dinner, this Saturday and Sunday.
None of the rabbi’s Stateville flock could answer his question.
“Maybe they couldn’t figure a way out?” suggested Catman, a 61-year-old prisoner who prefers to be known by his jailhouse nickname. In his almost 40 years in various penitentiaries, Catman has made his own bids for freedom, only to be recaptured after each escape.
“No,” Scheiman corrected him. “You see, God knew the Jews had been slaves for so long they’d become institutionalized. They couldn’t hack it in the outside world. If they’d gone directly to Israel, the land of freedom, they’d have become repeat offenders, for sure. Their 40 years in the desert, that was like parole for them.”
Along with that personalized reading of the Passover story, the rabbi gave each prisoner a one-page outline of how to conduct a seder. Some parts of the ritual have to be modified, given his congregants’ circumstances. Jews are supposed to drink four glasses of wine as the Haggadah-the ancient text recounting how the Israelites escaped from Egypt-is being read. But because alcohol is forbidden in prison, Scheiman brings bottles of grape juice instead.
Even that substitution makes some guards uneasy, the rabbi noted. Generally, prisoners are allowed to stock their cells with a full supply of matzo, the unleavened bread Jews eat during the eight days of Passover in memory of ancestors who fled Egypt without waiting to let their dough rise before baking. The grape juice, though, is doled out by the guards only immediately before each seder. Anything fermentable, Scheiman explained, is valuable in the underground economy of a prison.
“I love every one of my boys, but I know there’s guys in here who would brew the juice into hooch, given the chance,” Scheiman noted. “They’d drink four cups, and a lot more, even before Passover.”
Maintaining the age-old lookout for the prophet Elijah is also a bit of a problem behind bars. The Bible says Elijah never died but was taken in a fiery chariot to heaven, whence pious Jews believe he will return to lead them to a better life. During a seder, it is traditional to open a door and take a peak outside to see if the promised day is at hand.
“When I’m celebrating Passover, the cellblock will have been locked for the evening,” said Jay Fern, a prisoner at the Pontiac Correctional Center, the next stop on the rabbi’s rounds. “So I face East, towards Jerusalem. I close my eyes and picture a door. Then I open it in my imagination.”
The rabbi loves that kind of theological inventiveness. It’s what inspires him to drive the hundreds of miles that separate the 100 or so Jewish male prisoners and a few female ones that he estimates are scattered among the 36,500 inmates of Illinois’ 30 penal institutions.
“Guys in here know what it means to be in exile,” Scheiman said. “Every month when I visit my boys, I say to hang on, the Messiah is coming. The boys will say: `How about he gets a move on? We need him, now.’ “
He looks out of place
The rabbi is an incongruous sight, scrambling up and down metal stairs from one tier of a cellblock to another and pearing into endless sets of bars, looking for one of his congregants. He wears the long, black overcoat and broad-brimmed black hat of the Hasidim, Judaism’s ultra-Orthodox branch.
He seems a transplant from 18th Century Eastern Europe, where that pietistic movement was born. His low, measured voice is in constant danger of being drowned out by the discordant symphony of screaming and obscenties, blaring TVs and stereos that is a cellblock’s background noise.
Yet Scheiman says he feels right at home in prison, which to him is a brick-and-mortar metaphor for Jewish history. America has been good to his people, Scheiman notes, so many of his co-religionists virtually forget the pogroms and the Holocaust their forebears went through. On the “outside,” as he calls the world beyond bars, it’s easy to forget that suffering is built into the human condition.
“For 2,000 years we Jews have been in exile,” Scheiman said. “Sometimes it’s been like a maximum security prison. Other times, like doing time in minimum security. But there’s no getting out until the Messiah comes.”
For Scheiman, the road to prison began in Brooklyn, where in high school he encountered a teacher belonging to the Lubavitcher movement, one of the principal Hasidic sects.
His own parents were observant but far from ultra-Orthodox. Scheiman, though, decided to attend a Lubavitcher seminary, impressed by his teacher’s simple piety and straight-foward dependence upon the will of the rebbe, as the head of a tight-knit Hasidic clan is called.
Most Lubavitchers live near the rebbe’s headquarters in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. But in recent years the rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, has preached the need to reach out to all Jews, observant and secular, before the Messiah’s coming, which he forecasts as being at hand. So upon ordination in 1979, Scheiman, who had been married while in the seminary, signed up to come to Chicago with his wife Hinda as part of that outreach effort.
Building a 2nd congregation
He established a small congregation, which meets in a converted ranch home in Des Plaines, and found his prison ministry by chance.
“A Hasidic businessman in New York wrote me, saying a Chicago associate was in prison for having tried to avoid bankruptcy,” Scheiman said. “He’d burned his store down.”
Visiting that inmate on his first Passover in Chicago, Scheiman found himself fascinated by prison life. He persuaded officials of the Illinois Department of Corrections to share their inmate lists with him, so he could scan them for Jewish-sounding names.
Then he began driving a circuit of the prisons, setting out from Des Plaines on his Downstate runs on Sundays and Wednesdays.
For gas money and other expenses, he got contributions from attorneys practicing criminal law.
“I went to their offices, up and down LaSalle Street, saying you guys know crime pays,” Scheiman said. “It paid for that big car you’re driving, for your son’s fancy bar mitzvah. So how about kicking in a few bucks, so I can visit your clients in prison?”
On those trips, Scheiman offers inmates the opportunity to pray or, if they’re not relgious, simply to schmooze. The latter activity, the rabbi confesses, is as restorative of his own soul as he hopes prayer is for his inmate-congregants.
“In a suburban congregation, people kvetch to the rabbi about the most trivial, boring things,” he said. “Myself, I like hearing a good, juicy murder story from one of my boys in prison.”
With the rabbi’s help, some alumni of his ministry have gone on to make better lives for themselves after serving their terms. One, a convicted murderer from Skokie, became a Hasid upon release, married and moved to Israel, where he is studying Jewish law.
But other ex-cons, the rabbi noted, prove to be like the Israelites freshly freed from Egyptian slavery and unable to cope with freedom. Scheiman said he doesn’t have many illusions about his boys. He knows that many don’t spend their prison time repenting or reflecting upon how they took the wrong path in life, but by flooding courts and parole boards with hand-crafted petitions and lawsuits, looking for a way around their sentences.
“They call prison the Temple of Hope,” he said.
Yet that same moral ambiguity makes his prison congregants eternally fascinating, the rabbi noted, especially because prison sometimes gives people a fresh perspective on life.
At Pontiac prison, the rabbi ministers to Jonny Smith, a 42-year-old black inmate who won’t be freed until the year 2017 at the earliest. As a child, Smith had heard that one of his grandfathers was Jewish. By rabbinical law, that doesn’t make Smith Jewish, because descent in Judaism is traced through the maternal line. Before coming to prison, Smith didn’t much think about his Jewish grandfather.
“But in here, I decided it was important to reconnect the tree to my Jewish ancestors,” Smith said. “I’ve spent 13 years trying to convert to Judaism. I’ve studied Hebrew with books and tapes the rabbi’s got for me.”
Scheiman noted that he and Smith are hung up in a classic Catch-22 situation: As an orthodox rabbi, Scheiman can’t accept Smith as a candidate for conversion until he demonstrates full acceptance of Jewish religious law, which includes abstention from non-kosher food.
In Illinois, Jewish prisoners have the right to maintain their dietary code, Scheiman said, but a rabbi would have to certify Smith as Jewish before prison authorities would provide him with kosher food.
“I can’t even wear my Star of David necklace, except in my cell,” Smith said. “In prison, that’s also a gang symbol.”
For such dilemmas, the rabbi can only prescribe prayers in hopes that the rebbe is right and that none of his boys will have to celebrate Passover behind bars.
“OK, now you know to make the seder, if you have to, even though I really don’t think you’ll have to,” Scheiman told Smith and two other prisoners at Pontiac.
“Take a good look up in the skies when you’re out in the prison yard. If you see a great fiery helicopter, you’ll know it’s me and the Messiah, and that all the paperwork is finished. We’re going home to have Passover in Jerusalem.”