The NJ-based head of a national Jewish chaplaincy organization is protesting a cost-cutting decision by Canadian officials that eliminates non-Christian chaplains in the nation’s prison system.
Vic Toews, the Canadian Minister of Public Safety, announced on Sept. 30 his government was ending its part-time contracts with 49 chaplains who represent Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, and Wiccan faiths.
Julie Carmichael, director of communications for Toews’ department, told the Toronto Globe and Mail the cuts were made for economic reasons and “will save approximately $1.3-million of the program’s total $6.4-million budget.”
Cecille Asekoff, executive vice president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains in Whippany, called the cuts “a very big concern.”
“I want there to be enough pressure on the Canadian government that will make them reverse this decision,” said Asekoff, who doubles as director of the Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest. “I am sad to hear in 2012 that Canada, which is a Western open democratic society, has taken these kinds of steps. I think it has to be stopped at the beginning. It is unconscionable in this day and age to be confronted with a government that would discriminate against any faith group and the professionals within that faith group.”
Since the cuts, Christian chaplains under contract with the prison system have been assigned to provide spiritual counselling services to inmates of all faiths.
“Just because one learns to minister to everybody, people still are entitled to receive care from those in their own faith groups,” said Asekoff. “The fact there are no Jewish chaplains other than Christians on the staff sends a message… that [Canada] is a Christian society and the Christian world will take care of all of your needs.”
Cantor Michael Zoosman, currently a hospital chaplain in the Washington, DC area, spent three years as Jewish chaplain for federal correctional facilities in Canada’s Pacific Region.
“I was horrified” by the cuts, he said. “I see this as a lifeline for Jewish inmates and those who identity with Judaism. If this is cut off I worry about their livelihoods and their ability to rehabilitate. I fear that fulltime institutional chaplains – 99 percent of whom are Christian – will not be able to fulfill the void of Jewish chaplains and any of the other minority chaplains I worked with.”
D.J. Larkin, an attorney and advocate at Prisoner Legal Services of British Columbia in the town of Abbottsford, called the cuts “an egregious and blatant violation of human rights.”
Prisoner Legal Services is assisting inmates and their families in filing complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
In addition, a coalition of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Sikh, interfaith, and legal organizations is appealing to Toews to reverse his decision. Zoosman is circulating an online petition via www.change.org.
“We will take our direction from our Canadian chaplains” in fighting the cuts, said Asekoff.