By Jack Wisniewski
Zach Dicker left Maryland Hillel around 12 p.m. Tuesday to ensure that he would arrive at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia before the start of Yom Kippur.
A senior finance major, Dicker drove two and a half hours with five other students to the prison so that inmates could experience a Yom Kippur service.
“Some prisoners don’t have a minyan, so we’re simply numbers,” said Dicker.
A minyan is the quorum required to fulfill a public prayer service.
Upon arriving at the medium-security sector of the prison, the “leader” of the Jewish inmates confronted Dicker saying that “none of them know Hebrew,” but they still wanted a traditional service.
“I told them, ‘you guys won’t understand a word I’m reading’,” Dicker said. “So we opened it up to questions.”
Before Dicker’s group headed to Petersburg, they structured a Yom Kippur service that would cater to the wants and constraints of the inmates through the Maryland Hillel Yom Kippur Prison Program.
“At first it was very quiet,” Dicker said. “But after they slowly understood the questions that we were asking and how they were parallel to the prayers that we were reading in English, they started feeling the theme of the day.”
In addition to Dicker and his crew of students, four other groups each traveled to different federal prisons to provide Yom Kippur services to inmates. This year, 20 students participated and stayed nearby in either an Recreational Vehicle or a hotel for the duration of the holiday.
For the past four years, Maryland Hillel partnered with the Aleph Institute, a non-profit Jewish organization dedicated to assisting members of specific populations that are isolated from the regular community, such as prisoners. It works nationally arranging partnered organizations with different prisons to provide services for them.
They connected Maryland Hillel with Federal Correctional Institutions in Petersburg, Virginia; Morgantown, West Virginia; Allenwood, Pennsylvania; Butner, North Carolina; and Danbury, Connecticut.
To join the program, students submitted an online application at the beginning of September.
Two weeks before the holiday, admitted students attended a meeting that covered the details of the program and how to lead a Yom Kippur Service with both prayers and discussions. Then, the students divided into groups based on their strengths and weaknesses as well as their social bonds with others.
“The students work amongst themselves to create the service,” said Talia Orencel, Hillel’s director of social justice and engagement. “We give them a template of the basic schedule of Yom Kippur and they lead most of the parts of the service and prepare discussion questions.”
Orencel, a UMD alumna, helped coordinate the program.
“We look for students that have an open mind and are looking for a meaningful experience during Yom Kippur,” Orencel said.
A one year veteran and co-chair of the program, Dicker said that the primary attributes of a student in the program comes down to both social skills and experience in religious settings.
“Some people are better at talking to prisoners while other are better at leading a service,” Dicker said.
“In order to get comfortable with the inmates, you have to be comfortable with your group,” Dicker said.
To ensure the program’s success at the Petersburg prison, Dicker brought five of his Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers into his group.
Noah Schiff, a senior finance major and President of AEPi, accompanied Dicker for the Yom Kippur services in Petersburg.
“Being around people that knew each other instantly made us feel better,” Schiff said. “We were able to guess where we were going at all times, which made the service run a lot smoother.”
For Schiff, going to to the prison on Yom Kippur “was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
“Yom Kippur is a day of judgement,” Schiff said. “There’s no better person to spend that day with than than with someone that has sat through judgement which has made the biggest impact on their life.”
By the end of Yom Kippur, Schiff noticed the impact that the services had on the prisoners.
“As the conversations went on,” Schiff said, “they opened up more to the idea that this was their last moment before they could continue off into the next year.”