Torah study in prison has rewards, challenges

PHOTO: Volunteers take challah, grape juice and a taste of Torah to women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility every Friday. More volunteers are needed to keep this mitzvah going weekly.

Teaching Torah to women in prison is both challenging and rewarding according to volunteers who have visited Coffee Creek Correctional Facility near Wilsonville over the past six years. Additional volunteers are needed to continue this mitzvah.
“I think I’ve learned as much from them as they think they learn from me,” says Charlie Rosenblum, one of the core volunteers from Congregation Shir Tikvah. “They always bring their own perspectives to the table, and we all learn much from those whose lives are different from our own.”
Another core volunteer, Shir Tikvah President Emma Lugo, agrees: “The women teach me as much about Torah as I try to teach them. I love their insights on the parsha, I love their perspective, I love their novel approach.”
The mitzvah originated in 2008 when Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman, then rabbi of Congregation Shaarie Torah, was asked to visit a Jewish inmate. Six years later, in an oral history interview with OJMCHE, he said that the first person he met at Coffee Creek had gone on to earn her bachelor’s degree and was ready to go to graduate school.
Emma says she has seen that same drive to move forward in life from the women she has met since 2016.
When Rabbi Zuckerman moved to Nevada, he asked Congregation Shir Tikvah Rabbi Ariel Stone if she would take it over. She agreed.
Rabbi Stone went herself at first but has since passed it on to volunteers in the congregation. “I realized that driving down the Coffee Creek on a Friday morning wasn’t going to be sustainable for me given the requirements of the congregational rabbi. I’m not a prison chaplain, I couldn’t make that my priority.”
Now, two to three volunteers go to Coffee Creek every Friday – either in the morning for Torah study or in the evening for Kabbalat Shabbat, with a bit of Torah thrown in. About eight Shir Tikvah members were involved initially, but some have moved away or have other commitments. With just four core volunteers left, more people are needed to maintain a consistent presence.
Rabbi Stone hopes to have a total of 10 or 12 volunteers who can take turns going in teams of two to three. They are supported by the prison chaplain during the visits.
“It does require a little bit more work than the average mitzvah,” she says, adding that people need to “have the ability to lead a Torah study and also have the ability and the capacity to volunteer in a prison.” Other requirements include a Department of Corrections volunteer application form, a series of orientation classes online and one in person, finger printing, photo and background check.
“This opportunity (of) making that human contact has been really profound for the people who’ve done it,” says Rabbi Stone. “You’re going there to help them interact with Torah and have a little bit of spiritual nurturing – that’s a little demanding, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. There’s no reason why we can’t be sharing this mitzvah.”
Emma and Charlie have both been going to the prison regularly for six years. About 10 “adults in custody” attend most of the Torah sessions. Some are Jewish, some Jew curious, some are just interested in Bible study but learn about Jewish traditions, holidays and perspectives, as well. Both volunteers say the women largely take responsibility for what they have done to end up in prison but are eager to grow as people and move forward with their lives.
“This is just bringing a small sliver of civilization, just being able to sit and freely talk with people from the outside about Torah,” says Emma.
For Charlie, it’s an opportunity to expand his life perspective: “I have found it personally rewarding to listen to somebody who’s not like me for a change – to get out of my little bubble. When you talk to people who are not like you, you develop empathy – you can’t help it.”
Emma concludes, “I don’t really go there to try to do good or to try to make a difference. I actually go there to learn Torah from them. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
“We pray for pidyon shevu’im, the release of captives, in the daily Amidah prayer; it’s not often we have the chance to actually fulfill that mitzvah, at least in a spiritual way,” says Rabbi Stone.
To receive more information on this mitzvah and the commitment required, contact Rabbi Stone at


Add Comment