A photo of brown prison cells in a row with brown tile floors. (Photo provided by Charles Rabada

COLLEGE PARK — Fifteen students from this university’s Hillel spent Yom Kippur in prison this year, Jenna Heisman, the Social Justice Springboard Fellow for Hillel, said.

For the past several years, Hillel picked a handful of students to experience Yom Kippur with incarcerated Jews. This year, students attended both male and female prisons.

In the past, Hillel sent around six students. This year, however, Hillel sent 15 students to three different prisons. 

“It’s so easy to live in a bubble, but these students are choosing to step away from their comfort zone so that they can grow,” Heisman said. 

Josh Leeman, a senior computer science major at this university, wanted to spend his last Yom Kippur differently than any other. 

“I have the chance to meet people who are like you but not at all,” he said, “I’m going in with no expectations.”

Why not, Leeman thought when asked to participate. 

Hillel wanted the students participating to cultivate community with the members of the prison who participate in services. They also want the students to gain sympathy and empathy for these incarcerated people. 

“There is no better way to understand what another person is going through than to experience it, especially if it is uncomfortable,” Heisman said. 

Most of the students who participated have a passion for communal social justice and reform. 

Rabbi Ari Israel took the lead on recruitment. He directly reached out to students he thought would be interested, Heisman said. 

Some students went to a prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, while others traveled to either Sumter, Florida or Tallahassee, Florida Hillel rented an Airbnb and an RV within walking distance of the prison for students to sleep.

“It was overwhelming to coordinate so many logistics to three different places,” Heisman said, “but once the students come back with growth, it’s going to be really gratifying.”

Hillel saw it important to send students with a strong Jewish background. Students were to lead services and guide discussions, so Hillel chose students comfortable with Orthodox traditions and values.

Michael Lurie, a junior philosophy student at this university, attended a prison for Yom Kippur last year. He spent this year’s Yom Kippur at the same prison. 

“These people are once again on trial,” Lurie said, “the context is so poignant.”

As the only returner, Lurie helped facilitate some of the recruiting and logistics. 

To decide whether the experience should be more service-heavy or discussion-heavy, the students read the room and thought quickly on their feet, Lurie said.

“The men expressed faith and hope in their lives with eloquence,” he said.

Lurie looked forward to spending — what he thought was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — another Yom Kippur with inmates. 

“There’s so much more to social justice than checking off a community service box,” Heisman said, “it’s about gaining experience and learning from that.”


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