Breaking Out Of Sing Sing
09/17/99
Associate Editor

Time moves slowly in Sing Sing. In the early autumn of 1999, through the deep corridors of dungeons built in 1847, walks the prison chaplain appointed 49 years ago by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.Next week, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, a man in his 70s, old yet sprightly, kind and tough, will say his last goodbye to the high walls, making his last lengthy walk up and down steep stairwells and brick corridors, past the clanging gates, the clumping footsteps of passing inmates, and over to the chapel that will be named in his honor next week.He knows the room well, of course. When the Yeshiva University graduate first came to the Ossining prison up the river, there was no particular place for the Jews to come together. Back then there were 140, sometimes 180 Jewish prisoners; down in the Death House, 11 of the 19 inmates awaiting the electric chair were Jews, too.In 1959, in the Big House, up the hill, Rabbi Koslowe took over a storage room, made phone callsto the ìoutsideî to get someone to donate shabby red vinyl theater seats, screwed in a naked red light bulb for the Eternal Light, and blessed the new synagogue, Beit Shalom VíTikvah ó the room of ìpeace and hope.îìThank the Almighty,î Rabbi Koslowe tells his congregation, ìfor at least this one room where youíre free, spiritually free.îThese days there are only some 20 to 30 Jews in Sing Sing, out of more 2,700 inmates. The state now has 72 prisons, where once there were 10, so the Jewish population is more dispersed but still about 1 percent of those doing time.You do time with any of these men, Rabbi Koslowe learned, and you see the souls, withered perhaps, but souls, someoneís son, Godís child if no one elseís. Once some of these men went to New Yorkís best day schools and shuls; one went to the old Camp Massad. They were smart, just not as smart as they thought they were.Now theyíre doing time, as are we all, on the road to epiphany.Rabbi Koslowe would stand in front of the ark carved by sinners and speak of the weekís Torah portion, maybe Moses killing the Egyptian, or Joseph doing time on the testimony of Potipharís wife. Joseph served his time, forgotten, interpreting dreams for other inmates. The prisoners are free to say what they think.Rabbi Koslowe asks: ìWhy is it that Jews always care? Youíre picked up in Oklahoma, a Jew in New York feels bad. Why this bond? We share a destiny, a faith. Chaverim kol Yisroel, every Jew is a friend. Weíre not so pleased and proud that we have people serving time. Neither are you. I know that,î says Rabbi Koslowe. ìI didnít put you here. I canít get you out. But a re-evaluation of values, of positions, of goals and purposes are in order all the time. For you and for me....îA black inmate bursts into chapel.ìI hope Iím not interrupting the service,î says the inmate.ìNo, sit down,î says Rabbi Koslowe. ìTake a kipa.îìWhat I said was I hope Iím not interrupting. I was locked up some days ago...îìOK, just sit down and youíre welcome to come and listen.îìWhat happened wasÖîìNo speeches now. This is not a personal time, weíre going through a service.îìListen to me,î says the black man.ìListen to me, not to you, sir,î says the rabbi.ìI just want some advice.îìYou can get advice after the service.îìAll right, Iíll come back later then.îìAll the best,î says the rabbi as the door slams.ìThis is a familiar trait,î says the rabbi. ìWhen there is a problem, some think it always has to be right now.îLater, Rabbi Koslowe says that he was never verbally intimidated or touched in anger by a prisoner in all his years.After services, a Jew whoís doing time for murder says to Rabbi Koslowe, ìWe want a kollel here. Iím telling them [the wardens], we want you here full-time.îìDo me a favor,î says Rabbi Koslowe. ìDonít look for work for me.î Heís had a full career away from Sing Sing, serving as the troubleshooting chaplain at prisons around the state; teaching criminal justice at Mercy College, and serving as spiritual leader of Mamaroneckís Westchester Jewish Center. Now heís retired from them all.Heíd remember: Each prisoner is somebodyís child. Sometimes that ìchildî has children of their own. He remembers seeing the children ó two boys, 7 and 5 ó of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. On the Friday afternoon when the Rosenbergs got the chair, the rabbi went home to say Kiddush for his own 7-year-old that was celebrating a birthday.After Julius was executed, Ethel could have saved herself if she talked. She went to her death. ìThe Rosenberg kids once asked me, ëDid our parents love us?í I said, ëAs far as I know, yes, they loved you,í î said Rabbi Koslowe.He remembers Julius and Ethel at prayer services in the Death House. Julius and Ethel were separated by a wall, a Sing Sing mechitza that permitted the rabbi to see them both, though they could only hear each other. Theyíd hear each otherís voices singing Adon Olam. ìIíd draw them out into conversations, they could hear each other talk.îShe was the only woman executed in his 49 years at Sing Sing.Over the years, names have changed. Jews like Julius gave way to Jews like Jose, a child of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother. Prison regulations are perfectly pluralist: If any denomination counts someone as a Jew, he must be accepted as one by the prison, and is eligible for the kosher diet of cold cuts and other modest fare that Koslowe was instrumental in bringing to the state prison system in 1993.The prisoners wanted to give Rabbi Koslowe a goodbye party. Of course, he had to bring in the party food, the way for years he brought in latkes for Chanukah and blintzes for Shavuot. At the party a couple of weeks ago, the men surprised him with a handmade farewell card, fashioned from a beige manila envelope that opened as if from Hallmark. It was inscribed in blocked Hebrew letters and was signed by Jews, Muslims and even in Chinese.ìOur moments shared were times of hope and joy,î wrote an inmate.On the card was a carefully crayoned drawing of the chapel, with a bearded Jew, his head draped by a cloak of flowing woolen tallis, his hands waving goodbye. The waving fingers were not in handcuffs but in black leather tefillin. There was a picture of a window, drawn without bars, and a bird was flying away.

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09/08/2009 - 14:33

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