Kol Nidre at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is unique from the very beginning. Inmates from different sections of the same security level are not allowed to mix, even for religious services, except when they are. So it’s unknown if they’ll need separate back-to-back services in this classroom until the last minute.
The general floor has a large chapel, but this floor has only a classroom for Kol Nidre. We volunteers move chairs and tables until we have a semi-circle of chairs. The volunteer Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Avivah Erlick, will improvise the rest of the absent supplies, and leave us yearning for more of her stunning voice. The first young man to enter tells us how much he longs for services, how long it’s been. Since we’re waiting for others, we ask him what he wants Jewishly in MCJ, and he tells us he wants a Jewish calendar—can he get a calendar?—services, shabbat services at least once a month, he wants to celebrate holidays, and he’d love a study group. Talmud seems impossible, but it is discussed—maybe pages can be xeroxed one at a time.
He wants to be Jewish where he lives. Men’s Central Jail.
Unsaid: There is no funding. And who are going to be the Jewish volunteers? The Greater Los Angeles Jewish community does not support any Jewish chaplaincy or other Jewish prisoner services in LA county since Federation cut it loose.
Other inmates arrive. A newcomer has bought a siddur for the young man who must leave, one prisoner buying a siddur for another. We are on the LGBTQ floor with our very diverse incarcerated Jews. They beam to see us, that Rabbi Avivah has other volunteers with her, and that we want to be here. It is striking that when we pray refuah shlema for healing, a prisoner in a coma is named for Mi Sheberach.
It’s appropriate to say that most congregations and Jewish communities emphasize personal meaning, reflection, and forgiveness during yom kippur. We’re accustomed to this and we teach young children about “I’m sorry,” and kindness, at this holiday.
But here! Kol Nidre itself has new substance here. “We hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.” We all pray these words together. Our emphasis is on how we all together have fallen short, not kept our promises to ourselves, maybe not even to others, and here we are—all together in this. We look around the room, we hear the sounds from the jail corridor, (we are not allowed to close the classroom door,) and we see only human beings, trying to live. Like us.
We are all transgressors. In a prison tonight. Feeling our connection.
Rabbi Avivah’s shofar TEKIAH GEDOLAH echoes through the classroom and out into the corridors, sweet and loud. Throughout the jail. We are awed by incarcerated Jews joyfully singing Oseh Shalom, boisterously, happily, gratefully, before we say good-bye.