Eleven days out of the month, every month, Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman wakes at 4 a.m. and gets ready for a 12- to 15-hour day that might see him traveling up to 400 miles.
At the end of his journey? Often, a single Jewish prisoner.
That doesn’t matter to Scheiman, who has been doing this work since he moved to Chicago in 1980. He’ll go to any one of Illinois’ more than 25 state, county and federal jails and prisons if there is even one Jew incarcerated there.
He estimates there are between 100 and 150 Jewish prisoners in the correctional system at any one time in Illinois.
Often, he does no more than sit and talk with the incarcerated person – whom he calls a client, not a prisoner. He talks, he listens, he prays, he advocates. Sometimes he reads from the Torah, other times he’ll go to bat for a prisoner who wants to have kosher meals. And his help doesn’t stop when a person is released.
Many of those he has helped say his visits were a lifeline.
They are people like Diane, who did not want her last name used in this article and who was incarcerated for years in various prisons for what she says were white collar crimes.
“He’s just the best. He doesn’t judge you – I could tell him anything and he wouldn’t be shocked. He keeps you going. I’ve been out many years and he’s been there for me the whole time. I adore him,” she says.
Sam Horowitz, a young Jewish man whose struggles with anti-Semitism at a downstate Illinois prison were detailed in a front-page Chicago Jewish News story in 2006, says Scheiman “was a vital part in my sanity. He always had my back. I respect him more than anybody else on this planet and I don’t think there is one person he has interacted with who doesn’t feel the same way.”
Horowitz has been free for three years after spending nearly nine years in prison and is doing well; he stays in touch with Scheiman and sometimes volunteers with his organization. That’s not unusual, the rabbi says.
Now Scheiman, still grieving the death of his wife, Hinda, from cancer five months ago, hopes to do even more for prisoners and former prisoners and their families and is looking to expand his organization, which he has renamed the Hinda Institute and now includes two of his sons as partners. The name, aside from honoring his wife, stands for “Helping Individuals Ascend.” That’s how he sees the job.
Rabbi Scheiman didn’t set out to be a prison chaplain, he said in a recent interview. Recently married, he came to Chicago in 1980 from his native Brooklyn as a Chabad Lubavitch emissary tasked with running the area’s Gan Israel camps. Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz had just become the head of Illinois’ Chabad organization and he needed personnel.
“I was his first hire, and when I got here I asked, what exactly do you want me to do” aside from heading the camp program, Scheiman says. “There weren’t many Lubavitch in Chicago, so he said, why don’t you start with things that don’t cost money – give classes, speak, organize things.”
Scheiman was beginning to do that when he received a call from a Jewish man from New York whose son had gotten into trouble and was in prison in downstate Joliet. It was just before Passover.
“He asked if we could see to it that his son was able to have matzah and grape juice, have a Haggadah for Passover,” Scheiman says. “I started making calls, I called the prison, the (non-Jewish) chaplain and arranged to drop off matzah and grape juice. That was my first contact within six weeks of moving to Chicago.”
Shortly after that, he became involved with the now-defunct organization B’nai B’rith Women, which had a project called Jewish Prisoners Assistance Foundation that helped inmates while they were incarcerated and afterwards. The organization didn’t have a clergy member, so Scheiman took on that task. Slowly, he began getting more involved with Jewish prisoners, and when the rabbi who had been visiting the Cook County jail in Chicago died, he took over that task as well.
“As I was doing it, I felt a sense that this is what I should be doing,” he says.
“He was the first person to visit me when I was incarcerated. He visited me every month and he was very inspirational and forgiving. He inspires you with words – I can’t explain how he does it but he makes you feel better about yourself. He seems to be able to get past all the things that people think about people who are incarcerated and get them back in touch with who they are, what they are supposed to be, just feeling better about yourself.
“The prison system doesn’t have a lot of assistance for people who are mentally ill, and Rabbi Scheiman basically became my therapist. He was able to fill in the gaps that the social worker (whom he saw for 15 minutes a month) didn’t fill in, the empty holes. That’s what makes him the type of person he is. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person like him before. He is still my rav. I talk with him every week.” – Michael (he did not want his last name used), an offender incarcerated in downstate Illinois, free for more than two years.
There was a problem. Scheiman had no official status – “I couldn’t walk into the prison. I was sitting with the other visitors in the visiting room,” he says. He and Rabbi Moscowitz eventually met with several government officials, including then-State Sen. Howard Carroll.
“He said, we have imams, priests going to visit (members of) their faith groups, why not have a Jewish one?” Scheiman relates. Eventually, accompanied by much red tape, that came to pass. It meant that Scheiman had easier access to prisoners in every facility in the state and received a small stipend, along with paid mileage. (It’s not his only job; he also heads Chabad of Niles and still oversees the Gan Israel camps.)
Today, he might visit up to 25 prisons, assuming that each has at least one Jewish inmate (not always the case). One facility he goes to regularly is Cook County Jail, where, he says, out of a population of about 10,000, there are usually up to 15 Jews awaiting trial. If non-Jewish prisoners ask for his assistance or show an interest in Judaism, he will offer his services to them as well.
What he does during his visits depends almost entirely on what the inmate wants, he says. It might be anything from praying with tefillin (inmates are not allowed to keep the ritual objects in their cells for safety reasons) to delivering food for Passover to helping sort out problems by talking to family members on the outside.
“I am there first and foremost to remind them that they are a human being, they’re not just a number. That they were created by G-d, they have a purpose, they have something good inside them,” he says. “I go in with a friendly non-judgmental attitude and to them that is like a breath of fresh air. The main thing I do is go. The mere fact of someone coming in with a smile, not to judge, to lift up someone’s spirit – does it pay to travel 300 miles and spend 12 hours driving to see one Jew in a maximum security prison? Yes, when you see that man’s or woman’s face.”
Sometimes there are more mundane problems, such as the anti-Semitic incidents that, Scheiman says, are not commonplace but do crop up at times.
“Some of these prisons in rural areas, in southern Illinois towns, they don’t know what a Jewish person is,” he says. “When they’re alone, their attitudes and behaviors – sometimes nasty things happen.”
Other times, a request for kosher food, even when approved by the prison, provokes an attitude of “who do you think you are to get special meals?”
Scheiman says his attitude is to counsel forbearance.
“It’s part of the prison experience, and sometime somebody is going to say something. The inmates are not exactly nice guys, so what do you expect? It’s not right but if you can ignore it, it usually does stop,” he says.
He tells inmates that “G-d protects us and takes care of us” and counsels them, if they are harassed by other inmates or prison officers, to pretend they’re at the zoo, going by a cage of noisy monkeys.
“You don’t get upset about it,” he tells them. “No, you just keep walking, and it works almost every time. The harassment stops. But once the person feeds into it and gets all upset and starts shouting back, they sabotage themselves and they’re the ones who get into trouble.”
Of course if the harassment turns violent, Scheiman will intervene with prison authorities if he deems it necessary.
“I was the only Jew in East Moline (correctional institution) for 30 months. He came every month. He made sure I had Chanukah candles, Shabbos candles. He sent some people from a yeshiva in Iowa, they read the Haggadah with me, brought me some hamantashen on Purim. My parents already passed away, my aunts and uncles are all gone, but he got it into my head that all Jews are your family.
“Since I’ve been out, he has helped me a couple of times. I stay in touch with him. He usually calls me before Shabbos and the holidays, and I do the same for him. He performed a mitzvah when I was really down and out, and it was the same week his wife passed away. He took me to his shul, he helped me put tefillin on, he came with some tzedakah. He got the Ark to help me. Now I’m doing well.” – Neil Katov, currently on parole for a burglary conviction.
Scheiman says that even though he is a clergy member, he doesn’t push religion on the inmates he visits if that’s not what they want.
“I tell them that getting in touch with their Judaism will make them better human beings, help them get out of the cycle of addiction, of criminal behavior, but I don’t push it. I have three, four guys who say, ‘I don’t believe a word you’re saying. That Torah stuff is a bunch of fairy tales, but I like you coming because I’m Jewish.’ They will not miss a visit.”
Nor does he ask inmates what their crime was unless they tell him. There’s a wide range: “Take the Ten Commandments – I have one person from each one,” he says with a laugh. “The Jewish population is not any different from overall society. The bulk of the prison population are people with addictions and related crimes” and that holds true for the Jewish inmates too, he says.
Most have not committed violent crimes but have become involved with drugs or alcohol, have DUI’s, abused prescription drugs or were involved with marijuana, cocaine and heroin. That category, heroin addicts, are the most difficult to deal with and have the highest rate of recidivism (being re-arrested), he says, and helping newly released heroin addicts stay clean on the outside is among his most difficult tasks.
Displaying part of a PowerPoint presentation that he has developed, Scheiman says that, for Jewish prisoners with whom he has had contact, rates of recidivism are so much lower than for the general prison population that he can point to statistics showing that his work has saved Illinois $652,469 per year in lower recidivism costs. (That includes all Jewish prisoners, not just heroin addicts.)
He points to a study carried out by the Department of Justice showing that recidivism rates are 76 percent for prisoners in general but drop as low as 9.80 percent for those who have been involved in faith-based programs, have a relationship with a clergy member and have been involved in mentoring programs.
“Rabbi Scheiman was a supporter of Sam throughout his entire incarceration. He never gave up on him, he was always very much there for Sam. He never failed to visit every single month even with all the monetary problems (the state) is having. In terms of religion, he got Sam information, he got him books. He called us with reports when he would see Sam. He is really a mensch. He just really believes in what he is doing.” – Michele Horowitz, Sam’s mother.
“I looked forward to his visits because he always had my back, he was somebody I could count on. Even if I could only see him for five or 10 minutes when I was in segregation, I cherished those visits. They helped me get through the rest of the month. He kept me connected to Judaism. After Hebrew school, I lost my desire to be involved with anything (Jewish), but today I feel very spiritual. Going to synagogue, helping people out, staying connected to my Jewish faith, these are things I never would have done without the rabbi in my life.” – Sam Horowitz.
From his years of spending time with prisoners, Rabbi Scheiman thinks there could be a better way. That belief starts with the Torah.
“The whole concept of locking people up in prisons, if you go through the Torah, you don’t really see that as a method of punishment,” he says. Corporal punishment, even capital punishment for the most serious crimes is mentioned, as is monetary restitution and the notion of cities of refuge, but those, Scheiman says, are more like penal colonies than prisons.
The United States, he says, has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world.
“I see the prison system as counter-productive,” he says. “People with a drug problem could be in rehab facilities. They’re not running around the streets, but they are in treatment. Yes, there are violent criminals and they do have to be separated from other people, but that’s not most of the prison population.”
More than 30 percent of prisoners have mental health issues, he says: “Cook County jail is the largest mental health facility in the state. In the ’80s (the state) cut mental health facilities. Several of the prisons I visit used to be mental health places, then they closed down. I see people who are bipolar or have different mental disorders, they went off their meds, went on a spree and committed crimes.” There is very little treatment available to them while incarcerated, he says.
His suggestion: “Reopen the mental health facilities, put mentally ill people where they could be treated, monitor them and let them go home if they are well enough.
“Everybody realizes the whole thing is insane,” he says. “The states can’t afford to keep building prisons. Reentry programs, alternative sentencing, restitution, home arrest, treating people for their mental illness – those could be the way to go for the future.”
“I call him once a week, that way I don’t have to return to the system any more. I’ve known him 33 or 34 years and he’s never changed. He has helped Jew and non-Jew alike. He’s been a good friend, a good teacher. He never misses a beat – rain, storms, he comes. He has helped a great number of people, spiritually, psychologically. I’ve been a criminal for a lot of my life and locked up a lot of my life. I met him when he was young, just getting started.
“At first he tried to shy away from me (because I’m not Jewish). But we got to know each other and grew into each other. I’ve been interested in Judaism since the ’70s. When I’m ready, I’ll see him about what I can do to convert.” – Joe Carreon, non-Jewish recently released former prisoner.
“He’s so understanding, so good at making things happen. He got my family to talk to me again, all kinds of little things that really don’t mean anything to anybody but me. He helped other girls as well – I wasn’t the only Jewish girl. I still talk to him and listen to his advice. He’s a doll. I love him.” – Diane, former inmate out of prison for more than 10 years.
The budget crisis in Illinois, not surprisingly, has hit the chaplain system: Scheiman’s travel stipend has been cut nearly in half. But, he says, “I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing. I’m devoted to this work. Instead of cutting back, I’m going to expand.”
One way he’ll do this is to bring two of his sons, Mendel and Chaim (he has eight children) into the organization. Mendel has already relocated to Carbondale, an area with close to 15 prisons within easy driving distance. He will take over visitation duties for some of them from his father.
Chaim, Scheiman says, will be augmenting another component of the program: helping the families of those who are incarcerated, an activity his late wife was involved in. The work is particularly important for families just before and after a prisoner is due to be released.
“The most vulnerable moment is upon release,” Scheiman says. His son will keep in touch with 50 or 60 former inmates and their families, dealing with financial issues, jobs, housing. “These (family members) are innocent souls who are living through a nightmare they didn’t ask for,” he says.
At the same time, he is working on recruiting volunteers from the community who can aid and mentor inmates upon their release, and is partnering with a number of organizations to provide services.
He is already working with the Ark, Maot Chitim of Greater Chicago, Joblink, the Decalogue Society and more. Services the organization is providing, or hopes to provide, include job placement, activities for children, housing assistance, marriage counseling, a free loan fund, camp scholarships for children and support groups.
Still, the heart of the program remains the prison visitation, when Scheiman has occasion to repeat what has been his mantra for more than 30 years.
“I speak to the individual, the prisoner. I call them clients,” he says. “I speak to my brothers and sisters, my family members. I try to instill a value system where, if they carry themselves properly, a lot of times it might defuse the whole situation. G-d protects us, I tell them. If harm and pain is not supposed to happen to you, it won’t.”
Rabbi Scheiman, along with Colleen Connell, executive director of Illinois ACLU, and civil rights attorney Jonathan Lubin will discuss “Protecting Religious Rights of Prisoners” at an event on Monday, Oct. 28 at Holland & Knight, 131 S. Dearborn, Chicago. It begins with a 5:30 p.m. reception, 6-7:30 panel discussion and 7:30-8 talk with Rabbi Scheiman. Reservations: www.decaloguesociety.org.