For High Holiday services this year, Jewish inmates in northern Russia’s Ertsevo prison made history when they prayed in the sprawling country’s first on-site synagogue, a worship space they helped build. And as they turn their eyes to the fast-approaching holiday of Sukkot, plans in the works call for similar inmate-built synagogues to pop up at correctional institutions in the near future.

According to Rabbi Aaron Gurevitch, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who directs the Federation of Jewish Communities’ Department for Cooperation With the Military, Ministry of Emergency Affairs and Law Enforcement Agencies, the new synagogue is significant, given the diffusion of Jewish prisoners across a correctional system that spans the continent of Asia and part of Europe. Although he estimated the Jewish inmate population at around 1,000 people, any one prison, on average, has no more than two or three Jewish inmates. At Ertsevo, located in the remote Arkhangelsk region close to the Arctic Circle, there are 11 such prisoners.

“We managed to give Jewish prisoners the perfect gift for Rosh Hashanah,” remarked Gurevitch, who also leads FJC efforts on behalf of Jewish soldiers in Russia. The prisoners “built everything themselves: a prayer stand, menorahs, benches, anything from wood.”

The inmates even painted colorful murals on the synagogue’s walls.

Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students from Moscow conducted services at Ertsevo for Rosh Hashanah, but the prisoners led their own Yom Kippur services eight days later using prayer shawls and books sent to them by the FJC.

In an interview Wednesday, Gurevitch stated that other prisons are keen to get their own synagogues.

The desire stems from “various reasons, [from] regular correspondence with prisoners, the desire to communicate with local rabbis and community leaders, and prisoners’ interest in meeting regularly for prayer and dialogue,” said Gurevitch.

In the next few months, the prison near Krasnoyarsk, a Siberian city about 15,000 kilometers from the Russian capital, is slated to finish construction on a synagogue to serve its 20 Jewish inmates, the largest such population in the country.

Rabbi Aaron Gurevitch, left, and Jewish prisoners at Ertsevo line up at the new synagogue’s entrance.
Rabbi Aaron Gurevitch, left, and Jewish prisoners at Ertsevo line up at the new synagogue’s entrance.

From Literature to Food

At Ertsevo, prisoners are preparing for Sukkot by using their woodworking skills to build a sukkah. In addition, rabbinical students will visit during next week’s eight-day holiday to give the inmates the opportunity to bless the Four Species.

Gurevitch explained that the latest expansion in services for Jewish inmates flows from a 2001 agreement between the FJC and the State Corrections Administration. Under the terms of the agreement, “Jewish inmates are permitted to meet with religious leaders on a regular basis, receive humanitarian aid and literature, and receive health insurance coverage.”

The goal, emphasized the rabbi, is to “rehabilitate prisoners prior to their release from prison.”

Because of the great distance from one prison to the next, Gurevitch counts on the assistance of local Jewish communities to provide necessary services.

In Perm, for instance, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Deutsch maintains contact with the estimated 15 Jews serving time at the maximum security White Swan prison in Solikamsk, personally mailing them materials ahead of each holiday.

“It is very important to give some kind of internal peace to someone experiencing physical incarceration,” Deutch said last year. “Internal peace is serenity for the soul. We will do everything in our power to provide for the spiritual freedom of Jewish inmates.”

Gurevitch said that because of regulations, many times his staff must make do with postal contact.

“It is forbidden to speak on the phone,” explained the rabbi, whose staff maintains a written correspondence with about 400 prisoners, representing an average of 80 letters a month.

Each month, Gurevitch’s office distributes hundreds of copies of the L’Chaim Jewish magazine to prisons around the country.

Where possible, prisoners can also have access to special shipments of kosher holiday food, such as before Chanukah and Passover. For the most part, however, prisons have not allowed more regular kosher food distributions.

“It is very, very difficult,” said Rabbi Yaakov Fridman, director of Moscow’s Chabad House for Israelis, who has helped Israelis incarcerated in Russia obtain kosher food.

But with the Ertsevo synagogue functioning, and the next one on the way, Gurevitch signaled his hope for the future.

“The newly established prayer room undoubtedly shows a clear improvement in relations between the state and representatives of the Jewish faith in Russia,” said Gurevitch. “We are very pleased that Jews have been given this opportunity.”