As millions of American Jews are lighting candles and exchanging gifts with family to celebrate Hanukkah, Rabbi Shmuly Schlanger will be deep within the walls of one of California’s highest security prisons.
He’ll kindle seven tapers on one side of a steel mesh wall as a man normally kept in solitary confinement recites a blessing on the other side.
For prison inmates who are Jewish, Hanukkah is the most important holiday of the year, offering light in a place of great darkness, says Schlanger, a prison chaplain at the California Correctional Institution near Tehachapi.
He comes each day during the eight-day festival, lighting holiday candles on the visitor side of the steel-mesh holding cell that prisoners call “the cage,” while an inmate sits on the other side and recites the ancient blessings.
When they are done, the rabbi pushes a potato pancake and a celebratory donut through a slot, and the prisoner is allowed to eat.
But this ritual – sad, moving, hopeful – is not permitted in all prisons.
Most jails and prisons forbid all flammable materials – insisting that staff and inmates alike refrain from bringing lighters and matches on the premises.
Many states, including California, make exceptions for rabbis during Hanukkah.
But in several states, rabbis may visit Jewish prisoners on Hanukkah, but they may not light candles. Instead, adherents must use a plug-in or battery operated candelabra with fake flames meant to symbolize real candles.
The prison ministry run by the Orthodox sect to which Schlanger belongs has protested loudly about the policies, which officials say are meant to ensure safety for inmates.
The issue caused controversy in Arizona after Zalman Levertov, regional director of Chabad of Arizona, complained about it to a Phoenix-based newspaper, the Arizona Republic.
Levertov told the paper that the state’s policy infringed on inmates’ right to practice their religion.
Asked for comment by NBC4, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections said that if Hanukkah candles were allowed, the state would be forced to allow candles for other rites, including Satanism.
"If the open flame were allowed for the menorah, there are 7 other religions in ADC that have been authorized electric candles that may then require an open flame candle for services that occur daily or weekly throughout the year," spokesman Bill Lamoreaux wrote in an email.
"The 8 combined religions have a total population of about 11,000 inmates within ADC," Lamoreaux wrote. "These religions include: Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Wicca, Odinism, Pagan, Druid and Satanism."
Greg Metzger, a Los Angeles rabbi who also ministers to prisoners, said such policies effectively remove an important path to rehabilitation.
Whereas some mainstream Jews view the celebration as of lesser importance than other holy days, in prison, Hanukkah is powerful and moving, offering light in a place of desolation, and the hope of a miracle.
Refusing to allow a rabbi to come in and safely light candles, Metzger said, “is indicative of some bigger issues.”
In many jails and prisons, he said, spirituality is not valued as a path to rehabilitation. And that, Metzger said, is a mistake.
“I’ve never ever seen anybody punished into becoming a better person,” said Metzger, who is not affiliated with the Chabad movement. “Allowing people to have a potentially spiritual experience that can change their outlook on life is really important.”
On Wednesday, Metzger said, he and others planned to visit the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, to light Hanukkah candles for Jewish prisoners there.
For Schlanger, the flame is an essential part of the ritual, bringing light as it reaches up toward heaven, symbolizing the soul’s yearning to be more holy.
In prison, he said, the impact is palpable.
He cited the example of a 23-year-old man who was in the Secure Housing Unit, or SHU, at Tehachapi after his conviction for theft related to a gambling addiction.
The rabbi stood on one side of the steel mesh with the candelabra, or menorah, and the prisoner stood on the other. Their only contact was through a small opening in the metal.
“Every night of Hanukkah, we lit the menorah and he put his hands through,” Schlanger said. “And I would hand him a donut and he would cry.”
The young man promised to change his life, and so far he has, the rabbi said.
“Hanukkah is the most important holiday for a lonely soul in prison,” Schlanger said. “There is no more important holiday than Hanukkah to give them the light.”