This past Yom Kippur, 38 students from Maryland Hillel volunteered to spend the holiday leading services for Jewish inmates at area prisons. Now in its second year, the 5775 program was organized by senior Max Cohen and junior Anna Koozmin and run in partnership with the Aleph Institute, an organization that provides services to Jews in the military and institutional environments.
Groups of six to eight students visited seven prisons located between Maryland and Connecticut. The groups traveled and slept in RVs, each equipped with machzorim (High Holiday prayer books), a Torah scroll, and food for before and after the fast.
Below, two participants share their experiences:
Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht (“Man Plans, G-d Laughs”) has been my favorite Yiddish expression since my dad taught it to me when I was about eight. I think of it when I need to chuckle and be somewhat comforted if something hasn’t happened the way I planned. The expression reminds me to keep everything in perspective and not to forget that I can’t control everything.
When five friends and I were headed up to Danbury, Connecticut on Friday morning before Yom Kippur we had some untimely situations: It took an hour more than we expected to rent our Thrifty van, our car battery died and needed jumping, a long line of seniors waiting to use the ladies room held us up at a rest stop (we raced over to use the port-a-potties), and the RV rental company was going to close an hour and a half before we could conceivably arrive!
Cue Mensch tracht.
But the women who we spent Yom Kippur with at Danbury prison internalize this same attitude despite their more depressive situation. The women we met had such positive ways of understanding their lives. They were so open and excited to pray for the coming year that our service was reflective of repentance and acceptance—perhaps the most challenging process of Yom Kippur. Forgiving oneself was often cited in our conversations as being the hardest to accomplish.
The most impactful part of our service with the women was right before chanting the Avinu Malkeinu closing verses of Neilah, the concluding prayer service of Yom Kippur. Everyone shared a personal resolution for the coming year; some expressed a wish to spend more time with family after doing their time, to appreciate even the little aggravations of daily life, and to simply slow down and enjoy the things we often take for granted.
I am still in awe of the women’s real sense of faith that things will improve. Having been given this fresh perspective by the inmates has reinvigorated my sense of gratitude. The morning blessings now have new significance and I can connect to them more easily when I think of the Danbury women. I have stuck to my resolution thus far and can sense in myself a renewed gratefulness for everything. Even things that make me think of Mensch tracht.
Amanda Schwartz is a junior at the University of Maryland, studying English Language and Literature and Women’s Studies. She is a Tzedek Fellow with Maryland Hillel and currently runs a local after school girls’ empowerment club.
I helped lead Yom Kippur services for 15 inmates at the Allenwood Federal Prison. When I called my parents and said I would not be coming home for Yom Kippur, they were confused. After explaining I would rather spend the day in a prison praying with Jewish inmates, my parents were still skeptical. But by the end of our phone conversation, both of them told me how proud they were. Even though they were proud, I was scared. But I was not afraid about being in a prison. I feared I would not be able to significantly contribute to the service. Growing up, my parents chose to raise my older sisters and me as a part of the Reform Movement. Sometimes I feel my knowledge of Jewish traditions and customs lack in comparison to those who are more observant. Where my knowledge in one area may not match others, I make up for it in another.
Many of the Jewish inmates were not religious; one even said it was his first time observing Yom Kippur in 30 years. Regardless, I could see they truly wanted to be in that room praying. While I may have taken a back seat role in leading services, many of the inmates surprisingly felt comfort in that. Some of them wanted me to help explain parts of the machzor or show where we were in the service, too nervous to ask my friends leading prayer. And I realized there was no longer a reason to be scared. Because no matter what kind of Jew you are, we are taught the same values and traditions, just in different ways. In the end, I am glad I went and I look forward to being a part of the program next year.
Evan is from Silver Spring, MD and is a junior biochemistry major at the University of Maryland. When he's not studying, he's either playing for the club soccer team or volunteering in the community.