For the first time, Jewish inmates at state prisons in New Jersey will be allowed to participate in Hanukka menora-lighting ceremonies behind bars.
The agreement, carefully worked out by the Department for Corrections, top advisors to Gov.Chris Christie, and leaders of the state’s Jewish community, was reached Monday during a 45-minute meeting in a conference room at the governor’s office in Trenton.
Some 30 states currently permit menora-lighting ceremonies behind bars, but attempts to allow them in New Jersey penal institutions have failed in the past.
“The Department of Corrections will engage in one-year pilot project where they will permit supervised candle lighting in each prison facility for Hanukka, subject to security concerns,” explained Roger Jacobs, a West Orange attorney who played a major role in achieving the agreement.
Jacobs is a past president of the MetroWest Community Relations Committee who remains active in the state's Jewish community.
“A rabbi or Jewish lay person and a corrections officer will be on hand to supervise the eight days of ceremony in a religious observance area, and all of the logistical and security arrangements will be reviewed by the commissioner of corrections,” he told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview a day after the agreement was reached.
Jacobs became involved in the issue at the request of Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Friendship Circle of MetroWest, an organization run by Chabad.
The rabbi’s work usually focuses on providing families of special needs children with Jewish experiences.
“Although I don't usually deal with prison issues, the first night of Hanukka last year I got a call from some friends at the Aleph Institute,” a Chabad-run organization that ministers to Jewish men and women behind prison bars.
“They told me the Essex County Correctional Facility was not allowing menora lighting. So I made a few calls, and the next night, the Jews in the Essex County prison were lighting a menora,” he said in a telephone interview.
Once that victory was achieved, his friend at the Aleph Institute asked Grossbaum for a bigger favor. “He said ‘they don't allow menoras on any New Jersey corrections facilities.’ We have been working on it since then.”
Initially, Jewish leaders had requested that each inmate be allowed an individual menora. But corrections officials resisted, pointing out that fires could erupt accidentally or at the hands of an arsonist, and that a menora could be converted into a makeshift weapon.
“Those concerns were 100 percent legitimate and needed to be dealt with,” said Grossbaum. “They needed to be 100 percent assured of how the process happens in a safe place for everyone involved.”
Initially, the Corrections Department proposed using electric menoras. Religious leaders cited halacha, or Jewish law, in opposing that idea.
“You can’t make the brucha [blessing] unless you use candles or some other type of flammable substance,” said Grossbaum. “On an electric menora you can’t make a brucha and fulfill the obligation.”
Like Grossbaum, Jacobs became involved in the issue at the Essex County Correctional Facility last Hanukka, and used his influence to bring the rabbis and government officials together.
He joined eight Orthodox rabbis, three officials of the Corrections Department, and four representatives of the governor at the meeting.
Among those present were Gary Lanigan, the corrections commissioner; Deborah Gramiccioni, Christie's deputy chief of staff for policy; and Michelle Moallem, the governor’s liaison to the state’s Jewish community.
“The Christie administration took this very seriously. They showed great recognition and flexibility on religious policy and a real effort to be responsive to the Jewish community and Jewish prisoners,” Jacobs said.
“The commissioner made clear he is setting policy not just for the Jewish community and the administration needs to be sensitive to the all of the prisoners in the state and other potential observance issues,” he added.
There are an estimated 55 Jewish inmates in New Jersey's state prisons. Grossbaum said he has received letters from Jewish prisoners elsewhere “saying how the menora had an impact on them, watching the candles burn and reflecting on their lives and their hopes for the future.”
To Grossbaum, “it is Hanukka in June this year.”
As of press time, no one from the Department of Corrections or the governor’s office had returned phone calls to NJJN.