At the moment, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher Prison Meal” is the #2 most-emailed article in the Jew York Times.
Florida, a state with a substantial Jewish population and the third-largest prison system, stopped serving a religious diet to inmates in 2007, saying it cost too much and was unfair to other prisoners. Several inmates have challenged the move with little success. Last year, though, the United States Department of Justice sued Florida for violating a 2000 law intended to protect inmates’ religious freedom. The federal judge in the case issued a temporary injunction in December, forcing the state to begin serving kosher meals by July until the issue is decided at trial. Florida is one of only 15 states that do not offer inmates a kosher diet systemwide.
Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if it takes a little chutzpah to make the request.
“Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”…
But the question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals. “Who is a Jew?” Mr. Rassbach said. “People disagree about who is a Jew.”
The courts steer clear of that perilous debate. Instead, inmates need only say they have a “sincerely held” religious belief.
Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.
“Knowledge does not equal sincerity,” Mr. Friedman said.
Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.
But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle.
“There should be a way to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”