The Texas state correctional institution that made history in 2006 by allowing Jewish prisoners to celebrate the fall holiday of Sukkot expanded on its own record of religious inclusiveness by letting prisoners eat every one of the holiday meals inside of a specially-constructed temporary structure known as a sukkah.

For more than a week – Sukkot ended the evening of Oct. 10 – the 30 members of the Enhanced Jewish Program at the Stringfellow Unit, a minimum and medium security facility in Rosharon, were able to observe the same daily customs practiced by their coreligionists on the outside. According to Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, the co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of West Houston who serves as the lead consulting rabbi for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the decision by prison authorities to open up the entire scope of the holiday represented a sea change in a policy that in 2007 and 2008 permitted just a few meals to be eaten inside of a sukkah.

Essentially a walled hut with an organic roof purposely open to the sky, a sukkah serves as a reminder of the Jewish people’s temporary dwellings during their sojourn in the desert. The Stringfellow Unit’s sukkah occupied space in a courtyard outside the prison dining room.

“The Texas prison system has been very accommodating in allowing Jewish inmates to get together and eat their meals in a sukkah,” said Goldstein, who regularly visits prisoners in a few units across the Lone Star State.

Former inmate Cliff Katz, who celebrated Sukkot at the Rosharon facility last year and was recently released, said that his experiences, while not amounting to the number of meals allowed inmates this year, had a profound influence on him.

“It was a very knowledgeable experience,” said the 43-year-old. In addition to eating some meals in the sukkah, “we would say all our prayers, and [make a blessing] on the Four Species.”

For his part, Goldstein said that he drew his inspiration for helping Jewish prisoners from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who corresponded with at least one inmate who asked what purpose his life could have behind bars. According to Goldstein, the Rebbe encouraged the man, telling him that he had a tremendous opportunity to elevate sparks of holiness in one of the lowest places on earth.

He’s been aided in his task of ensuring religious services to Jewish prisoners in the form of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which upon its passage by Congress in 2000, outlawed undue burdens on the free expression of religion.

“As human beings, we are all in jail to some degree,” explained Goldstein. “There are three levels of imprisonment. The G‑dly soul trapped within a physical body is one level. The fact that we are in exile is a second level. An inmate occupies the third level. G‑dly sparks are everywhere and must be elevated.”

Rabbi Dovid Goldstein observes operations in a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit.
Rabbi Dovid Goldstein observes operations in a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit.

Jews Look out for One Another

When Goldstein first arrived in southeast Texas 11 years ago at the invitation of Rabbi Moishe Traxler, director of Chabad Outreach of Houston, Jewish inmates were spread indiscriminately among the state’s dozens of prisons. Over time, authorities concentrated them in one central facility and three others, enabling them to enjoy “a sense of community,” said Goldstein.

“The Jewish inmates all look out for each other,” stated Katz. “And Rabbi Goldstein takes care of our needs to the best of his ability.”

Once appointed as a state chaplain in 2006, Goldstein worked to procure a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit. He also teaches a course affiliated with the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute at the facility.

“It’s great,” Katz said of the kitchen that opened in June 2007.

As for the sukkah, the road toward officials’ acceptance of the structure was not easy. The first inmate to request one waited a few years until the director of the entire prison system decided to allow a pop-up model that would be dismantled after each use. The inmate who requested it, though, died from leukemia shortly before being able to enjoy it.

The more permanent sukkah at the Stringfellow Unit came as a blessing of sorts for the inmates, who enjoyed a full-fledged celebration in it on the fourth day of this year’s holiday. Presided over by Goldstein, the ceremony featured words of Torah, as well as inspirational songs and servings of cake.

“The Rebbe saw to it that the incarcerated and others in similarly confining situations should be shown love and care,” related Traxler, “and given every avenue of assistance available so that they can express their Jewishness in a meaningful and inspiring way.”