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Ask The Rabbi

Are all prisons in America guided from one general office?

There are all kinds of prisons in America. Most Jews in America find themselves in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Each state has its own state prisons, under a state Commissioner. Then there are county jails, in which sheriffs are in charge. America also has Homeland Immigration prisons and US Marshal prisons, from amongst the more known prisons.

Prisons, be they federal, or state, each separately has its own set of rules on what a person entering the system is allowed to bring with him from the outside. For Jews who want to bring religious books and/or articles, again, each state and/or county and also each federal prison has rules on what is allowed.

Can I send a prisoner clothing or money?

Clothing cannot be sent to federal (BOP) prisoners. The prisoners are allowed to purchase clothing from the commissary.

Most State prisons do allow for clothing to be sent to prisoners.

Cash is not to be sent to any prisoner, as it may get lost. In almost all prisons, state, city, county and the federal system, a Postal Money Order is the best way to send money. Each state has rules on how to send it. For federal prisoners, it is sent to a specific address and the Postal Money Order is made out to the name and number of the prisoner, also mentioning his location.

Can I send medicine?

Medicine cannot be sent to prisoners in the federal (BOP) prisons. An over the counter medicine can be purchased out of the commissary.

For State prisons, it is best to inquire about sending medicines, as each state has another policy.

Keeping Kosher

Question: All my life I have been struggling with a mental illness. Eventually it brought me into prison. Why has G-d made me suffer? I am not a bad person.
Philip, Federal Corr Institution, Miami FL

Answer: Every soul journeys down into this world with two suitcases. One is full of the challenges and the other is full of the talents and strengths necessary to withstand those challenges. The first suitcase is opened for you in your life time; the second you have to open yourself.

Your soul's challenge is mental illness. Your mission is to use your talents to turn the pain and frustration into a positive force.

Because of your openness and willingness to share your experiences, you can be an inspiration to others who have mental illnesses. You can bring hope and light to those who are not as strong as you, by showing them just how much they can achieve if they focus on their abilities.

You can also bring understanding and insight to those who have not themselves experienced the pain of mental illness.

Once I spoke to someone with mental illness and asked him what was the hardest thing about having a mental illness? He said it was the silence; when people discover that you suffer from mental illness, they don't know what to say, and the conversation comes to an abrupt and awkward end. It would have been better if they asked questions about the illness, is what he said. If only they would show an interest to understand what I am going through so that I can share what I am experiencing, rather than let me suffer alone."

G‑d has presented your soul with a challenge, but He has also given you a bright and warm personality, and a strength of character that can stand up to the challenges you face. This is a gift that I hope you will share with the world.

Observing the Sabbath and Holidays

Question: I am a convert to Judaism and I'm very proud of it. I have always felt totally welcomed by the community and in no way an outsider. But I am deeply bothered by the law that says a convert is not allowed to marry a Kohen. If I am a fully fledged Jew like any other, why am I not good enough to marry into the priestly tribe?
Rachel, Federal Corr Institution, Tallahassee FL

Answer: When the Torah forbids a marriage, it is never because one party is not good enough for the other. It is because the parties are not matched to each other. They are simply not soulmates. In the case of the Kohen and the convert, their soul dynamics clash, their spiritual energies contradict, and so they can't marry.

A convert can marry a king. A convert can marry a prophet. A convert can even marry a rabbi, the highest echelon of Jewish society. So it makes no sense to say that a convert can't marry a Kohen because they are second class citizens.

The holiness of a Kohen is hereditary. If your father is a Kohen, then you are a Kohen. Priesthood is a birthright that is not achieved through a person's effort nor deserved through a person's righteousness. It is an honor that is bestowed at birth.

The holiness of a convert is the exact opposite. It is completely earned. The convert was not born Jewish. He or she chose it. They achieve Jewishness of their own initiative and with their own hard work. They are self-made souls.

So these two souls, the Kohen and the convert, are moving in opposite directions. The Kohen receives his power from above. The convert creates his own soul energy from below. The Kohen has the ability to bring down blessings to others, just as his soul was given to him as a blessing. The convert has the power of innovation, of initiative, of creating holiness from the ground up. For this reason, their souls are not a match.

Both the Kohen and the convert have awesome holiness. It is a great privilege to be gifted with the soul of a Kohen. And yet, the self-made soul of a convert has a depth of experience that inherited holiness cannot compete with. Neither are second class souls.

The Kohen is crowned with a legacy from past generations. A convert creates his or her own legacy for future generations. The Jewish people is richer because of each of them.


Question: Recently a woman came to visit with her child, and it was clear the child was recovering from the measles. As a result, staff closed down the entire camp for two weeks. The men had time to discuss the pro and con about measles. What is the Torah view about vaccinations?
Michael, Otisville Prison Camp, NY

Answer: In a letter from the Rebbe, the Rebbe writes:

I am surprised by your question, since so many individuals from the Land of Israel have asked me about this and I have answered them in the affirmative, since the overwhelming majority of individuals do so here [in the United States] successfully.

Understandably, if there are inoculations that are produced by multiple pharmaceutical companies, you should use the ones whose product has been safely tried and proven.

In the spring of 1956 the Rebbe wrote:

In reply to your letter in which you ask my opinion about the injections that are commonly given to young children:

It is with regard to matters such as these that the axiom "Do not set yourself apart from the community" applies. You should act according to that which is done by [the parents of] the majority of children who are in your children's classes . . .

Even as the polio vaccine effectively eliminated the dreaded disease, there were instances where faulty shots actually brought about illness. In a letter from the winter of 1957, the Rebbe addressed this issue:

. . The event that occurred in the United States was at the beginning of the use of these vaccines, before the [exact] medical compound was definitively established. This is not the case at present, after months of experience with the vaccine.

Therefore, once a vaccine's reliability is firmly established, there is no worry. To the contrary .

Religion Rights

Question: Can you explain what are Teffilin?
Daniel, Blackwater CF, Milton FL

Answer: Tefillin are a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. A set includes two-one for the head and one for the arm. Each consists of three main components: the scrolls, the box and the strap.

All Jewish males over the age of bar mitzvah (13 years old) should perform the mitzvah of tefillin. The Torah commands Jewish men to bind tefillin onto their head and upper arm every weekday, in fulfillment of the verse (Deut. 6:8), "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes."

In order for the Teffilin to be kosher according to Jewish law, tefillin must meet thousands of requirements. Think of them as a finely tuned spiritual machine. If one part is out of place, the whole thing won't work.

The scrolls inside the tefillin are inscribed in black ink with a quill (or reed) pen by a specially trained scribe, known as a sofer. The parchment is handmade, and must be from a kosher animal. The scribe concentrates intensely and writes with special Hebrew characters. There are 1594 letters in each of the tefillin boxes. If one letter is extra, missing, or even incorrectly written, the tefillin are invalid. The boxes and straps are also made of leather from a kosher animal.

One can fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin anytime during the day-from sunrise to nightfall. A blessing is recited, and it is customary to read the Shema prayer. Traditionally, tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayers.

Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays.

Tefillin is an incredibly powerful mitzvah. The experience of putting on tefillin has changed many people's lives.


Question: Rabbi, can you tell me what are Chasidic teachings?
William, Southport Corr Facility, Pine City NY

Answer: The Chassidic movement (started in earnest by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century) taught Jews to serve G-d with love and joy rather than fear and trembling, to sing and dance rather than cry and fast. What concerns G-d the most, the Baal Shem Tov would preach, is that you serve Him with your heart. Love G-d, even if you don't always understand His ways; love His Torah, even if you can barely read the words; and most of all, love one another, even if that "other" doesn't measure up to the expectations of G-d and His Torah. And celebrate all of the above.

Chassidim are also known for their meticulousness in the details of Jewish ritual and practice, for extending themselves much further than the strict requirements of halachah, in consonance with the Talmudic dictum, "Who is a chassid? One who goes beyond the letter of the law."

Through Chassidus, a person can change his natural traits to G-dly traits.

Chassidus innovated that even a simple unrefined person can understand G-dliness

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