Palm Beach County Jail says 'No' to using real menorah candles

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- A menorah doesn't seem like the typical jailhouse weapon. But celebrating Hanukkah in the Palm Beach County Jail means sacrificing tradition for safety due to the jail's no-flame rule for inmates.

Candles, along with cigarettes and any open flames, are forbidden at Palm Beach County's jail facilities. That means Jewish inmates celebrating the eight-day Festival of Lights have to make do with the electronic candles that the jail allows at worship services.

That's not good enough, according to The Aleph Institute, a Jewish advocacy group located near Miami.

The institute specializes in providing religious programs for the incarcerated and has called on the jail to change its no-candles policy. An actual flame is key to the Jewish celebration and birthday-cake-sized candles don't pose a significant safety risk, according the institute.

The jail allowing candle burning would mean "keeping alive a tradition dating back hundreds of years," Rabbi Y. Weiss of the institute wrote to county officials.

Hanukkah is a "celebrated holiday of the utmost importance in the Jewish religion, signifying the fundamental concept of freedom of religion and the victory of light over darkness."

Jail officials say they do everything they can to accommodate religious celebrations, but that lighting candles poses too great a fire hazard.

"We had to say, 'No,'" Chief Deputy Michael Gauger said. "We have rules. We have very strict guidelines. We don't want to place anybody in jeopardy."

The jail has Jewish chaplains and holds a Hanukkah service, but doesn't allow individual menorahs or any holiday decorations in cells and other living areas, Gauger said.

Menorahs are allowed in the jail program rooms, where religious events are held for inmates of all faiths. Those menorahs have flickering electronic candles.

"It looks like a flame. It acts like a flame but it's not dangerous," Gauger said.

The no-candles, no-fire rule applies to inmates of all religious groups, from Christians to Rastafarians. Any kind of fire, even tiny menorah candles, can lead to accidental fires that threaten all inmates, Gauger said.

Inmates could also use the candles to try to hurt other inmates or to cause disturbances, such as burning their bedding and other materials, according to Major Christopher Kneisley.

While Palm Beach County says 'No,' Broward County does allow inmates to light menorah candles under supervision of a deputy. The menorahs are allowed in common areas, but not inmate housing areas, according to the Broward Sheriff's Office.

The Aleph Institute offered to donate candles and menorahs to the Palm Beach County Jail, and each inmate should be allowed to light the menorah for all eight nights of Hanukkah in a room set aside for the celebration, according to Weiss.

Participating in religious services helps inmate behavior, which makes for a safer jail environment, according to Weiss. Allowing menorah candle lighting would also be in line with promoting freedom of religion.

"It is our hope that in that spirit this important religious practice can begin to take place in the Palm Beach County Jail," Weiss wrote.

Institute Executive Director Rabbi Menachem Katz declined to comment on the Palm Beach County Jail's no-candles rule.

Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a second century revolt of devout Jews, the Maccabees, who fought to reclaim the Jewish temple in Jerusalem from forces hostile to Judaism.

The candles in a menorah are a remembrance of a lamp in the temple that burned for eight days, even though it only had one day worth of oil.

In response to Aleph's concerns, Palm Beach County Jail officials did agree to look into how other jails handle menorahs and to consider whether future changes could be made to the no-flame rule. But that won't come in time for this Hanukkah, which ends Sunday.

Meanwhile, no inmates have been requesting candles to light, according to jail officials.

"We bend over backward to provide all that we can," Gauger said.


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