Skip to main content

Purchase Tickets

Hanukkah in Prison

For eight nights every year, Jewish people around the world celebrate the festival of lights, adding a new flame to their Hanukkah menorahs each sundown to commemorate an ancient miracle. For hundreds of Jewish people incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons today, this tradition will be carried out behind prison walls. In fact, Pennsylvania prisons have a long relationship with Judaism that dates back nearly two centuries, including some historically significant moments at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Hanukkah is the celebration of two related events: the victory of Jewish freedom fighters over an oppressive Syrian-Greek army and a miracle that allowed one day’s supply of oil to burn for eight full days. In the second century BCE, Syrian-Greek forces occupied much of the Middle East. Under their rule, local religions and places of worship were systematically eliminated, forcing Jewish people to practice in private.

In response, a small group of Jewish fighters known as the Maccabees took up arms, rebelled against, and ultimately overcame the Syrian-Greek forces. Able to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem again, the Maccabees rededicated the temple by lighting the eternal flame: a light or lamp in a synagogue that never goes out, symbolizing God’s eternal presence. Despite only having enough oil to keep the flame lit for one day, the eternal flame remained lit for eight days.

While people incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary were not only welcomed, but encouraged to practice their religion, they were, like the Maccabees, forced to worship in private, at least at first. Throughout the 19th century, all Eastern State prisoners lived (and worshiped) alone in their cells.

When the penitentiary opened in 1829, both religious instruction and solitary confinement were critical to the goals of rehabilitation set by the prison’s administration. For the founders of Eastern State, faith and worship were means of attempting to facilitate penitence, or true regret, within the individual while solitary confinement prevented incarcerated people from influencing each other. While most religious instruction was designed for Christian prisoners, by the 1840s rabbis began visiting Jewish prisoners privately.

Historic photo of Eastern State's emergency hospital, a small one story stone building

In 1913, solitary confinement was abandoned and for the first time, people incarcerated at Eastern State began to do things together, including worship. At first, Jews worshipped together in the prison’s emergency hospital, a now demolished structure between Cellblocks 2 and 3. In 1924, however, a synagogue was constructed out of what had been four separate exercise yards between Cellblocks 7 and 8. The synagogue at Eastern State Penitentiary is believed to be the first prison synagogue in the United States, and it provided incarcerated Jews with their own, dedicated place of worship.

The first mention of Hanukkah at Eastern State appeared in the Warden’s Daily Journal from December 13, 1925. Warden John Groome reported “To mark the first night of Hanukkah, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association glee club performed for the inmates in the prison’s center surveillance hub.” From what we can see, similar celebrations continued in the years to follow.

A side by side of Eastern State's synagogue, on the left is a photo of the synagogue strewn in rubble, on the right is a photo of the synagogue cleaned up mid-restoration

Two years later, on December 18, 1927 it was recorded that, “Services for the Hebrews were held in the Synagogue from 6-7:30pm.” On December 18, 1930, Warden Herbert Smith reported, “As part of Hanukkah festivities, a theater troupe performed in the prison’s synagogue for Eastern State’s Jewish inmates.” Finally, in 1960, the Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Dr. Victor Solomon told the prison’s newspaper, The Echo, that Hanukkah proclaims light “to dethrone the darkness of hate and prejudice, greed and arrogance which still reigns supreme in many human hearts."

In Pennsylvania prisons today, there are roughly 855 incarcerated people who identify as Jewish. During a typical Hanukkah celebration behind prison walls, Jews meet in a prison’s chapel after nightfall to light the chanukiah, a candelabra (or menorah) with nine candles: one for each night of Hanukkah and one candle to light the others. Rabbis visiting prisoners for Hanukkah are also permitted to bring a dreidel: a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on it. The letters signify the phrase “A great miracle happened there.”

Part of historic Hanukkah song sheet

In 2009, with the help of many generous donors, a preservation team finished restoring Eastern State’s synagogue to its 1959 appearance after decades of abandonment and disrepair. The eternal flame in the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue was relit and remains lit to this day, even when the penitentiary is closed. During the restoration process, song sheets from Hanukkah celebrations past were discovered buried beneath six inches of mortar and plaster. Still legible, the lyrics read:

Brave Judah Maccabee put the enemy to rout,
And from the holy temple
He drove the tyrants out,
‘Twas then in old Jerusalem
That freedom was attained,
And oil of gladness filled the lamp,
The Torah lamp regained.
Come sing then, and bring upon
All honor to the brave Maccabees
Let kinsmen and brethren
Sing praises together and
Thank God for the light which is His.

Damon McCool
Public Programming Specialist

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner