Prisoners face loneliness and the occasional shortage of matzah
ISOLATION, LONELINESS, and the odd shortage of matzah — these are some of the problems facing Jews in jails across the UK.
In general, the needs of Jewish prisoners are met extremely well. Kashrut-observant inmates receive kosher meals, which are delivered in a fully cooked and frozen state, and just need to be heated before they are served.
Due to the low numbers of Jewish prisoners, it would be quite impractical to establish kosher kitchens in prisons.
This can occasionally present problems, for example when prisoners are given the same meal for several days in a row because the kitchen assistants just pulled out the first one they reached from the freezer.
A more serious issue, albeit infrequent, occurs when stocks of kosher meals run out before the next delivery arrives.
The religious needs of strictly Orthodox Jews are met to a commendably high level. This even includes authorisation for the erection of a Succah.
In general, the prison catering managers are extremely helpful and supportive, and do their best for all prisoners in taking account of their varying medical and religious needs. However, they are not always on duty and have to delegate.
This sometimes results in instructions not being implemented. For example, at one of the prisons this year, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish prisoners received honey on the first two nights, but no apples.
A far more serious problem occurred two years ago on Pesach when no matzah arrived at one prison, and its catering manager, trying to be helpful, substituted them with cream crackers.
This was a disastrous situation that was not resolved until halfway through the festival.
These are the kinds of problems that can arise because Jews are so few in number and unlike other faith traditions who have full-time chaplains, we Jewish chaplains are very much part-time.
A question that is frequently asked is whether Jews suffer discrimination and antisemitism.
While of course incidents sometimes do occur, they are rarely serious, particularly bearing in mind that tensions in prisons are generally high.
However, strong action is usually taken whenever these problems surface.
Given the high numbers of Muslims in many prisons, there are occasions when things get uncomfortable, particularly when Israel is in the news — for example, during last summer’s military action in Gaza.
Fortunately, however, Muslims and Jews generally get on well together as they do with those of other faiths and those of no faith, because ultimately, they understand it is in their own interest to do so.
In general, the needs of Jewish prisoners are met extremely well
Rabbi Binstock is director of Jewish Prison Chaplaincy. He leads a team of around 40 rabbis ministering to Jewish inmates
Pentonville Prison, London