MANSFIELD — Rabbi John Spitzer stood in a sparse room at the Mansfield prison leading a service with 11 inmates.

Dressed casually, the 74-year-old Stark County resident used a magnifying glass to assist with reading from a prayer book. Images of two small crosses, displayed on end tables holding potted plants, were the only religious symbolism. An organ and lectern were in the corner. The most colorful and stylistic touch was an inmate painting of a waterfall and verdant landscape open to interpretation.

No prison bars were visible but the attire — pale blue shirts and dark blue pants — were reminders of a facility holding men convicted of murder, rape, aggravated robbery and other violent crimes.

Large windows offered an expansive view of the prison grounds and a blue sky dotted with white clouds, as close as the inmates will get to physical contact with the world outside an 18-foot fence topped with razor wire.

Prisoners rose and sat at Spitzer’s direction with as much discipline as the congregation he led at Temple Israel in Canton for nearly 30 years. They read Hebrew Scripture or chanted in a singsong cadence with Spitzer’s voice rising tunefully above the collective group.

“Try to make a list of how we want to redeem ourselves to get ready for the High Holy Days, which are really a time of personal judgment,” he told the men. “It’s when God judges us but more importantly I think when we judge ourselves and decide what the path of life will be.”

The message was followed by Spitzer’s blowing of a shofar, a long, curved animal horn.

“These notes will be elaborated on during the High Holy Days services ... but for our purposes let’s just think of ... a low note and a high note being the way our lives can go,” explained Spitzer. “We have low moments, certainly moments when we’re not proud of ourselves or things happen to us, but we have the opportunity to ascend, to elevate ourselves ... (and) regardless of our situation in life to elevate ourselves spiritually.”

Prison ministry

The lack of stained glass windows didn’t matter. Neither did the video surveillance and armed guards who keep the 57 acres behind the fence secure. Or the fact that Spitzer’s training for the prison ministry included what to do in a hostage situation.

Spitzer said what matters is what he does from within those dull concrete-block walls. Connecting with men spiritually, instructing them on the practices and traditions of the Jewish faith, accepting them as human beings regardless of prison terms as long as 80 years to life.

The rabbi has plenty to keep him busy in retirement. He’s still an associate professor of Jewish studies at Walsh University in North Canton. And he volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and serves on the board of Coming Together Stark County. Spitzer also delivers a sermon and leads a service periodically as a rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel.

But he said the two-hour-and-30-minute drive from Canton to Mansfield and back fulfills him as deeply spiritually as any ministering he’s done in a formal setting with parishioners.

“I get as much or more from being there than they do,” he said of the inmates. “Every time I go, I learn something new about being human, about being Jewish and about myself.

“I think I understand more now about forgiveness and atonement,” Spitzer said. “I learned about the power of incarceration. I think incarceration has the power to drive someone crazy or to give someone new perspective about their life and who they want to be.”

The view from inside

Howard J. Watson, 53, was raised Catholic before he ultimately drifted away from religion.

Bad choices followed. The Cleveland area man was convicted of murder and kidnapping. Watson got his term extended after stabbing a fellow inmate at another Ohio prison. The victim survived.

“Before ... my attitude was if you do something to me, I’ve got a right to hurt you,” Watson said.

Since then, his views have changed with the help of exploring Scripture. “You don’t really have a right to hurt others. God is about mercy. I really need to show and extend mercy to others — that’s what Scripture, old and new, teaches.”

Asked about Spitzer’s impact, the prisoner’s face glowed with a smile.

Watson praised the rabbi’s acceptance of others regardless of their particular faith or degree of spirituality. “He just wants you to further your relationship with God,” he said.

During Spitzer’s visit Thursday, other inmates shared their thoughts on the Jewish services, crediting the religious programming for lending a sense of community found nowhere else in the prison.

Judaism has led one prisoner to help others behind bars by tutoring in mathematics or giving musical instruction. The man also painted a mural sold to raise money for charity. “I helped people in need,” he said.

Another inmate said emphatically that “religion is one thing where no one else gets to tell us what to do.”

“I’m guilty,” he said of the crime that got him locked up for decades. “We admit we did what we did. We never lied. We never said Satan made me do it.”

‘We hit the jackpot’

The Jewish religious program is among many at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. Other religions also are served, including Christians, Pagans, Catholics and Muslims.

About 25 percent of the inmates participate in religious programming at the prison, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Throughout the Ohio prison system, roughly 46,000 of the 48,500 inmates consider themselves to be associated with a particular religion or faith.

About 8,000 religious volunteers assist Ohio prisons with varying aspects of programming, according to the ODRC.

Those who attend Spitzer’s two 90-minute sessions per month run the gamut of faith. Some were raised Christian and others are on a path to Judaism.

Before Spitzer began his pilgrimage to prison, the Mansfield facility had gone years without a volunteer rabbi. Inmates had formally complained about the absence of one. A search for a rabbi wasn’t fruitful initially, said Angela Hunsinger, deputy warden of special services.

Then the Canton rabbi was sought out by Eric Harmon, one of two full-time chaplains at the Mansfield facility. Harmon, who ministers with fellow chaplain Damon Butts, had met Spitzer as a theological student at Walsh University.

“We feel that we hit the jackpot,” Hunsinger said of Spitzer. “He just took (the inmates) under his wing like he had been doing this for 20-plus years. It was just a real natural fit ... (and) he never looked down on the men for being here. He treated them as if they were a member of society.

“That really gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of community and it ties them into the outside world that they’re isolated from.”

Added Harmon: “God’s prescription for healing doesn’t end where the (prison) walls begin.”

Both Harmon and Hunsinger fully acknowledge the inmates have committed serious or grisly crimes. However, besides public safety, another core function of the ODRC is to rehabilitate, Hunsinger said.

She said those efforts have been continued and enhanced under Gov. Mike DeWine and Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the ODRC.

“The reality is a majority of these inmates will be going back into our neighborhoods,” Hunsinger said. “We want them to go out better than they came in.”

Spitzer, meanwhile, said he’s gained new insights into faith and God through the prisoners.

“I think incarceration has been transformative to them,” said the rabbi, who packs prayer books and other Jewish literature into a dolly and storage case he brings on each visit. “I would have expected these men to be angry (and) to blame everyone but themselves but you won’t find that anger with this group. They’re not shaking their fists at God. They have found a way to live in prison.”

 

Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and ed.balint@cantonrep.com

On Twitter @ebalintREP