Going to prison in Wisconsin doesn’t mean losing Judaism | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Going to prison in Wisconsin doesn’t mean losing Judaism


It’s a scene not generally associated with prisons; a group of men sitting around a room studying Torah.

Yet in Wisconsin, losing one’s freedom doesn’t necessarily mean losing one’s Judaism.

That’s because of people such as Lowell Louis, who for many years has been a volunteer chaplain at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution.

Louis, 69, is religious director at Congregation B’Nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Oshkosh. He juggles those duties and his full-time sales position with providing Jewish prayer, study and holiday celebration for inmates at Oshkosh, the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston and the Redgranite Correctional Institution near Waupaca.

It was approximately 20 years ago when the medium security prison in Oshkosh sent a letter to B’Nai Israel, seeking a volunteer to work with its Jewish population. Louis stepped up.

The state Department of Corrections does not allow religious services without a volunteer present, making people such as Louis so important.

“In Oshkosh, I try to make sure I see them once a week: Friday night or Saturday morning or sometimes a Bible study (once a month) on Thursday,” he said. “It depends on my obligations to my own congregation.”

Louis tries to be at the correctional facilities on Jewish holidays. “If that doesn’t work out, I go the day after. It still gives them a taste of the service and (for High Holy Days) they hear the blowing of the shofar,” Louis said.

Louis began with one inmate, but up to 12 men have come for services recently at the Oshkosh facility. (Four or five attend at Redgranite and Sand Ridge.) Louis brings prayer books and occasionally recorded music and videos.

Many prisons have paid full-time non-denominational chaplains, but Louis makes pastoral calls when asked. Louis officiated at the funerals of two Jews who died in prison.

Shabbat services are about 1 ½ hours, followed by an Oneg for which Louis brings challah and juice. “They ask questions, ask for more interpretation of prayers, ask what is going on in the world and how it affects Judaism,” Louis said of the Oneg dialog.

He added, “They are simply men coming together in unity, wanting to learn more about Judaism.”

Louis brings a lulav and etrog for a Sukkot service at prison, provides and lights candles on Chanukah, brings hamantaschen for Purim “and we have a full-blown Seder for Passover,” for which Louis brings the food.

Kelli West is the Department of Correction’s religious practices coordinator, and the advisory committee she oversees meets twice a year and includes about 25 faith leaders from around the state. The DOC attempts to have at least one person from each faith that has a prison follower represented on the committee.

“I work with chaplains and supervisors at facilities to navigate requests for religious accomodations,” West said. “We have a very diverse population of inmates who follow a number of different faiths.”

Tristan Cook, the DOC’s director of public affairs, added, “The department has always recognized the importance of making religious practices available to inmates. Religion can be a very important part of their lives. Kelli facilitates someone being able to practice his religion and does it in consultation with faith leaders.”

That consultation includes determining what is allowed into prisons for religious programs. “It could be a prayer shawl, a yarmulke, a shofar … it depends on the religion,” Cook said.

Prisoners are allowed kosher food. Although prisons don’t have kosher kitchens, West said food can be prepared following kosher guidelines.

Louis, who says he feels safe in prison, recommends others consider volunteering.

“I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I go to the prisons to lead services,” he said. “When I leave, they embrace me and say shalom. That, more than anything, lets me know I am doing some good and have accomplished a mitzvah.”

* * *

The state Department of Corrections is seeking volunteers from the Jewish community. If interested, contact DOC religious practices coordinator Kelli West at Kelli.West@Wisconsin.gov.