The three men finished reading their prayers and took turns spinning a dreidel. The focal point of the table in front of them was a menora, its candles burning brightly.
“It’s comforting to know that Jews all over the world are doing exactly what we’re doing right now,” Juan Castillo said during the Dec. 12 gathering — the fifth night of Hanukka.
He said that that sense of community and feeling of belonging were particularly important to him and the two others seated behind the table.
The three inmates at New Jersey State Prison took part in this year’s Hanukka celebration at the maximum security facility in Trenton — the first since the New Jersey Department of Corrections permitted candles to be lit behind bars during the eight-day holiday.
“In the past, we had an electric menora,” inmate Anil Nayee said. “This is different. The flames from the candles are so beautiful.”
The new policy permits inmates the use of a department-approved menora and candles for holiday celebrations. The policy resulted from discussions among the Governor’s Office, NJDOC, and Jewish community leaders.
The pilot program stipulates that during the eight nights of Hanukka, each prison designates a room in which a menora is lit. Participating inmates are permitted to observe the lighting and the burning of the candles to completion under the supervision of staff. Electric or battery-operated menoras also have been authorized for use.
“Our goal is to respect and accommodate religious traditions as best we can in our institutions,” said NJDOC commissioner Gary M. Lanigan.
New Jersey State Prison inmate Michael Schneider was pleased as well.
“As we sit here and watch the candles of the menora burn, I think back to my childhood,” he said. “So many memories. Right now, those memories mean more to me than anyone could imagine.”