Prayers From Rikers

Rabbi Misha Shulman
7 min readApr 17
Photo Gerardo Romo

“My son plays soccer right over there,” Shira tells us as she drives us into the parking lot on route to Rikers Island. She parks the car, and our small delegation of rabbis and activists pick up our passes that will allow us to drive over the bridge and enter the jail. The four of us, Shira, Rabbi Margo and Rabbi Becky from T’ruah and me had come, one week before Passover, to join the prayer services and teach Torah to the Jews who find themselves there. Back in the car we show our passes at the entrance to the bridge that goes over the water from Queens. As we drive across, I’m struck by the massive infrastructure that was built and maintained to create this jail. Across the bridge we’re stopped at a few other checkpoints to see our passes and finally allowed in.

It’s a sprawling place with a number of different facilities. We are going to the Anna M. Cross center, which houses approximately 2000 people. Pretty much everywhere you look on the island you see barbed wire, so much of it that in certain places it almost looks like an art exhibit. We find Rabbi Gabe and the rabbinical intern, Miriam sitting at a small picnic table, and the four of us guests gather around. Gabe has been one of the three Jewish chaplains on the island for five years. The two of them give us some information about how things work there, describe the living conditions of the people incarcerated there. Most of them live in giant rooms with 50 other people. Those with acute mental conditions stay in a different part of the center in smaller rooms, and as soon as they show any sign of improvement, are sent back to the main dorms.

When we enter the Center we show our passes and our IDs, surrender our phones for safekeeping, go through an airport style metal detector and walk-through. Someone remarks that it feels like a high school other than the bars here and there. Rabbi Gabe describes the quarter mile long hallway that goes towards the dorms. He tells us that there are a few hundred incarcerated people on the island who identify as Jewish, but he doesn’t expect more than ten people at the prayer service, in part because there isn’t enough staff to escort people from the dorms over to the chapel. They used to be allowed to walk on their own sometimes, but that practice was ended during Covid and doesn’t seem like it will be restored. Staffing has been a serious problem there, which became…

Rabbi Misha Shulman

Jerusalem born, Misha has been working at the cusp of religion, art and activism since 1999. Rabbi @ The New Shul and Director of School for Creative Judaism.