I had never been to a prison before. Yet, here I was, traveling to the edge of the Catskills to visit the Eastern Correctional Facility, 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 has been doing the job he loves for close to 30 years. “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.”

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.

A total of 46 inmates at Eastern were listed as Jewish, though not all are Jews according to Jewish law. 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.”

On Tuesdays Rabbi Frank teaches Bible, Talmud 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.

Do they leave in a better place than when they came in? Yes, if they utilize their time.

“I hope to teach them basic values – menschlichkeit. Some of them come in when they’re 25 and leave at 40. 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 God 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 20 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 17 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 46, 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 Jewish books in the past year, including Talmud as well as works on personal development and Jewish law. Now 56, 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 20 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.”

Chanan pushes himself to grow in his Judaism.

Determined to use his time in prison constructively, Chanan pushes himself to grow in his Judaism. “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 and 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 18 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 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 his Jewish growth. 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, 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.

The relationships he forges with the inmates last long after they leave prison and reenter society.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Rabbi Frank forms deep bonds with some of the Jewish prisoners. The relationships he 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 his family celebrations and they invite him to theirs.

 

“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’ [24-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.”

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2014.