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No Boundaries for Forgiveness

UMD Students Celebrate “Day of Atonement” with Inmates

By Liam Farrell

Prison Bars

Two worlds crossed steel bars last week, united in their belief in the virtue of forgiveness. On one side were the tax cheats, racketeers and inside traders who had already felt the force of earthly retribution. On the other side were Maryland students, contemplating judgment of a more spiritual kind.

They came together on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when 38 Maryland students went to seven prisons to join inmates for prayers. It was the second year that UMD students marked the High Holy Day by traveling to facilities in states as far as West Virginia and Connecticut.

“It was just such an incredible experience,” says senior Max Cohen, who helped organize this trip and attended last year’s. “It was something that just needed to continue.”

The program was arranged in collaboration between Maryland Hillel, an organization seeking to enrich the spiritual lives of Jewish undergraduates, and the Aleph Institute, a social justice nonprofit.

“Judaism is all about community,” says Amy Weiss, director of service learning initiatives at Maryland Hillel. “It’s important we serve all types of Jews, especially on Yom Kippur, to give people an opportunity to reflect.”

Yom KippurCohen and several other male students took an RV to the Federal Correction Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia, spending the night in the parking lot before heading inside with a Torah, prayer books and shofar horn. Although the students met with mostly white-collar, low-security inmates in gray sweatsuits rather than orange uniforms, Cohen says there were plenty of nerves at entering such an unfamiliar environment.

Conversation, however, came easily.

“We were all a little surprised how comfortable we were,” he says.

The prayers, in a mix of Hebrew and English, facilitated plenty of discussion. The inmates and students talked about the nature of repentance, and the differences in asking for forgiveness from family and friends versus from God or yourself.

“We’re all the same,” Cohen says. “All of us sit in front of God, waiting to be judged.”

The most powerful moment came during an ending blessing, where participants say “Next year in Jerusalem”—a nod to the ability to rebuild oneself.

“The idea is, we are looking to be in a different place. We still have the power to grow our character,” Cohen says. “You want to have a fresh start.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.