For many Jewish inmates around the nation, a key part of the Hanukkah holiday is lighting the sacred nine candles of the menorah.
But the North Carolina prison system isn’t allowing inmates here to follow Jewish law because it’s not letting them use real candles, according to the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based group that advocates for Jewish prisoners.
“We feel like the Grinch is stealing Hanukkah from Jewish inmates,” said Rabbi Yaakov Weiss, the institute’s advocacy manager.
In an email to Weiss Thursday evening, North Carolina prison commissioner David Guice said the state’s policy is dictated by safety needs.
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“Supervising the utilization of real candles presents safety and security issues, and our priority must remain the safety of all our staff and inmates,” Guice wrote. “We offer our Jewish inmates the option of battery operated candles, which has been our accepted practice for many years.”
Weiss, however, said at least 44 states – and the federal prison system – all allow Jewish inmates to use real candles. They’ve found no safety risk, Weiss said, because the candles are small, and the menorahs are lit in prison chapels, under the supervision of staff.
“It’s an interesting thing that they’re not allowing it, because the menorah represents freedom of religion,” Weiss said.
Charlotte Rabbi Yossi Groner said that for Jewish inmates, the flame of the menorah is an important symbol.
“The whole idea of the menorah is to give hope in a time of darkness,” said Groner, chief rabbi at Congregation Ohr HaTorah. “…I am surprised they would deny (inmates) that opportunity.”