BORON, Calif. — Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof . . . and ye shall return every man unto his family . . . .
The choice of the morning's Bible reading was coincidental--determined by the age-old rhythms of the Jewish calendar--but the meaning was not lost on the 30 or so people attending an unusual bar mitzvah on a hilltop overlooking the California desert.
Under the circumstances, the passage chanted from the Torah scroll by the bearded rabbi was especially appropriate. The description of the Year of Jubilee, first outlined to the Children of Israel thousands of years ago in the wilderness of Sinai, spoke directly to the congregants: The five bar mitzvah "boys," all men in their 30s and 40s, were inmates at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Boron.
Convicts have long found religion in prison. But the state and federal chaplain service could find no record of a bar mitzvah held inside a state or federal prison in California before this one in May.
Of the 440 inmates at Boron, about 30 are Jewish, all serving time for nonviolent crimes. Not all of them are observant, but most showed up to participate in the service, which was organized with the help of Chabad of Anaheim.
No family members were present and no band played. Yet all the rituals were observed, complete with a few of the simplified social amenities associated with the coming-of-age ceremony, which means, literally, "child of the commandment."
After the service, overseen by three Orange County rabbis and the Protestant prison chaplain, the five inmates were pelted with packets of candy and each received an inscribed copy of a book titled "To Be a Jew." A simple kosher meal followed, with dancing to "Hava Nagila," which was banged out on a piano.
"We Jewish people have had a tradition of helping each other in times of trouble," said the inmate who helped organize the ceremony and who asked to be identified only as Mordecai. Thanking the rabbis and the gift shop owner who donated the books, Mordecai, 39, told the inmates, "the Jewish community has not forgotten you."
In the outside world, Rabbi David Eliezrie told the inmates, the bar mitzvah "has been hyped up to more than it should be." The essence of the ritual, he said, is that an individual must "accept the realization that there is a God in the world and that we have obligations to him."
The five men gave differing reasons, ranging from indifference to political upheaval, for not having had a bar mitzvah at 13, the customary age.
"I had football practice," recalled Bob Weitzman, 36, adding that Jews were not very popular in his neighborhood. In prison, he said, "I just became more aware of my background."
Another inmate, now 40, who asked that he be called Aaron, said his parents could not afford to join a temple when he was younger. Having a bar mitzvah, he said, was "something I always wanted to do, but I was embarrassed."
When the man told his family about the planned ritual, he said, "My mother said she couldn't be more proud that at this time of my life I decided to do this."
Laszlo Bossamyi, 43, a native of Hungary, turned 13 when his country was in revolution. Since then, he said, "I wanted to find my Jewish spirit. I found the support here. I feel very happy and satisfied." Bossamyi has served 10 months of a five-year sentence for mail fraud.
There was a good bit of humor, much of it relating to the fact that most of the Jewish inmates were serving time for white-collar offenses involving financial dealings.
Expressing gratitudes to the prison administration for its help, Mordecai observed, "It's not often that you can have a bar mitzvah for five and not have to pay the caterer."
Mordecai said he had hoped to present each of the five with a fountain pen, a traditional bar mitzvah gift, in addition to the books. "The administration decided that wasn't such a good idea," Mordecai said. Mordecai, who masterminded a multimillion-dollar scam in New York involving bank loans on non-existent leases, said he hoped to be released to a halfway house within six months.
Jewish inmates at Boron who observe kosher dietary practices supplement a vegetarian menu with kosher packaged foods on sale at the prison commissary, along with special meals arranged for various festivals, such as a recent Passover seder, which was paid for out of the chaplain's fund.
"We have tried to be responsive," said Jack Bean, assistant prison superintendent.
Over the last year, Mordecai said, the Jewish inmate group has been increasingly active. Although some had never been to a synagogue, they now attend regular Sabbath services in the prison chapel on Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening, as well as a Sunday night historical discussion group.
The Boron prison is one of the few in the federal system that allows inmates to be released on religious furloughs. Last August, for example, several Boron inmates spent two weeks in Fullerton, renovating the home of an elderly woman, under the auspices of the Evangelical Free Church and Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries.
In March, seven Jewish inmates from Boron were given a one-day furlough to celebrate the festival of Purim as guests of Chabad of Anaheim.
"At Purim, a few men came over and said they'd never been bar mitzvahed," Rabbi Eliezrie said. From that point, the rabbi said, all the plans and training for the bar mitzvahs came from the inmates themselves.