An Urgent Appeal from a former B.C. Jewish Prison Chaplain:
My name is Cantor Michael Zoosman, Jewish clergy and chaplain. I am a Permanent Resident of Canada and worked full-time at a Jewish congregation in Vancouver for the past four years before moving back to the United States this past summer. During my time in Vancouver, I was honoured to serve as the Jewish prison chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada, Pacific Region (covering all federal prisons in British Columbia, Canada) from 2009-2012. I worked proudly alongside minority chaplains representing Islamic, Sikh, Wicca, Buddhist and other minority faith traditions. I serviced more than 50 individuals – both Jewish and non-Jewish – who sought out the services of the Jewish chaplain in the process of their rehabilitation.
I am proud to say that my presence, support and efforts played a tremendous role in the reintegration of many of these individuals, whether still incarcerated, on parole or after the completion of their sentence. Without my personal ministry, I sincerely feel that these people would continue to be recycling through a very imperfect and under-funded prison system. I was able to get to each of the nine prisons in the Pacific Region every sixth week. During my visits, we commemorated Jewish holidays together in Hebrew, observed Jewish ritual, studied sacred Jewish texts, offered traditional prayers for healing for loved ones, and recited memorial litanies for recent family losses. The Jewishly-oriented pastoral care I provided in one-on-one sessions helped remind these individuals that the community from which they came or with which they associated had not forgotten about them. Most importantly, it gave them a sense of spiritual community to which to turn as they began their reintegration into society. Many of those same individuals who I came to know in prisons began to attend my synagogue upon release. Based on our interaction, religion became their beacon of hope and a bulwark for their rehabilitation. This result would have been nearly impossible to achieve with a non-Jewish multifaith chaplain filling in for a Jewish clergyperson from the Jewish community.
My fellow minority chaplains and I each received compensation from the Canadian government for our services. This compensation was minimal (not more than $7,000.00 a year), with a sizable amount of this used to cover hefty costs of the extensive car and ferry travel required to reach the several federal prisons across the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island. Still, this compensation enabled us to carry out the bare minimum of this essential outreach to this population in greatest need of support for rehabilitation. Like many of my fellow part-time chaplains, I would not have had the congregational support to carry out my prison ministry without this stipend, which went to the synagogue community where I served as cantor, and on whose time I was carrying out this chaplaincy.
The current Minister of Public Safety, Mr. Vic Toews, decided last month to eliminate even this basic funding for minority prison chaplains, cutting out minority chaplaincy altogether. Official responses from minority faith communities have expressed very strong opposition to this development. Here are two links to articles that detail this reaction from the Jewish and Islamic communities:
Why did the government do this? According to the CBC, a government spokesperson was quoted as saying: "[T]he government… is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding."
Yet, the federal government is doing the exact opposite with this policy: it IS choosing Christianity in preference to all other religions in the prison system. And any cost savings will be minimal (20 part-time chaplains' positions), while the effect on inmates will be disproportionately large. In just one action, Minister Toews:
(a) undercuts an inexpensive avenue of rehabilitation;
(b) enacts a policy that cannot help but discriminate against non-Christian inmates;
(c) offends the spirit -- and, likely, the letter -- of the Charter of Rights & Freedoms;
(c) sends a message to non-Christian Canadians that they are lesser citizens; and
(d) provides preferential government treatment, access and funding to Christian clergy.
I firmly believe that we can best judge any government by how it treats those in need. By turning its back on the spiritual needs of minority inmates in its prison system, the Canadian government is cutting off one of the most significant sources of “Correction” within the “Correctional Service of Canada.”
During my time as chaplain, I sadly witnessed construction at almost every prison I served. This was a result of legislation by the Canadian government in recent years to expand the prison system to allow for the significant increase in prison population expected in response to harsher sentencing laws (also put forth by the current government). My fellow chaplains and I were extremely worried that the government did not have any adequate plan in place to expand the resources for rehabilitation - including the all-important need for chaplains – at the newly-constructed facilities.
Rather than meeting this need for more resources, the current government is moving in exactly the wrong direction with the Minister of Public Safety’s extremely misguided action. If the pattern continues, I worry that the Canadian prison system soon will look much more similar to the failed – and increasingly privatized – corrections system that plagues my own country of origin south of the border. What’s more: I do not dare to consider what the future holds for the basic human rights of all Canadian citizens, let alone those in prison, if this kind of undercutting of religious freedom is allowed.
WITH MINORITY CHAPLAINS CUT-OFF FROM THOSE INCARCERATED, THEY WILL BE MUCH LESS LIKELY TO REFORM, AND MUCH MORE LIKELY TO POSE A CONTINUED THREAT TO CANADIAN PUBLIC SAFETY.
As Minister of Public Safety, it is Mr. Toews' responsibility not to let this happen under his watch. Please, sign this petition demanding for the reversal of this tragic decision.
B'shalom, in Peace,
Cantor Michael Zoosman
P.S. The drawing above was made for me by one of the individuals who I often visited while Jewish prison chaplain. Before his deportation, he gave me this gift and wrote in a letter that my visits were a tremendous source of hope and blessing for him. Please, join me in assuring these kinds of experiences continue, and in preventing the spiritual abandoning of individuals like the artist above. Thank you.