On the first night of Hanukkah, 20 men filed into a spare room with cinder-block walls, linoleum floors and harsh fluorescent light. They took their seats on metal folding chairs. Dressed in blue pants and blue tops, most of the men wear yarmulkes.
This is Hanukkah at San Quentin.
The only woman in the room presides over this celebration. Carole Hyman, the Jewish chaplain here, leads the inmates in readings from the Torah in Hebrew and English. Some rock back and forth gently as they read.
Finally, the menorah candles are lit. There are more prayers, and then the men sing "Rock of Ages."
Before they head back to their cells, Hyman gives each of them a fist bump and an enthusiastic "Happy Hanukkah!"
Hyman says that there are 80 to 90 men who attend her classes and services. Some were raised Jewish; others came to the faith later in life, often while in prison. But, she says, however they came to Judaism, most are looking for answers.
They want to know “if there is a God. If there is a God, what does that God want me to do? How should I live? Why am I here? How can I change? Those kinds of things,” she says.
Hyman has been the Jewish chaplain at San Quentin for 10 years. Her spiritual work in prisons began 14 years ago after a long career in the wine industry.
Most of the inmates at this Hanukkah service are serving life sentences -- many for first- or second-degree murder. Hyman says she decided early on that she would read the court transcripts on these men, but only after she got to know them.
“I can read something on paper and be utterly appalled and shocked by it,” she says. “But when the person is in front of me, that's not how I'm relating to them. That's not who I see them as. Thank God.”
Inmate Raymond Aldridge had a Jewish mother, but he was not raised with any religion. In 1977 Aldridge was convicted of eight armed robberies and a murder. He rediscovered his Jewish roots in prison. His mother told him it would help center him. He says she was right.
Aldridge tells me that Hanukkah is a story about fighting to have your own faith and practice your own beliefs.
“There's a lot of friction in prison,” he explains. “There's a lot of bias in prison, and this is one way of asserting my personal identity.”
The Jewish community at San Quentin is diverse. Many are African-American, including Ahmed Polley. Thirty-two years ago, he killed his wife after an argument in San Diego. He's been in prison ever since.
Although Polley is Muslim, he prays with the Jewish congregation here. What draws him to the services is “an emotional connection being with people who love and worship God," adding that "it's made me a better person.”
Of the men Hyman ministers to, about 35 are on death row. She meets with those inmates individually. And while she has read their files and knows they have all done upsetting things, she believes that “it isn't true that the men on the row are some kind of monsters. It's just not true.”
She says, in fact, that most of these men are not that different from her. But after a decade at San Quentin, Hyman seems a bit worn out.
“These men are in exile,” she says, “being separated from community, from friends, from family. There's a tremendous amount of pain here. And that takes a toll. It takes a toll.”
This will be Hyman's last Hanukkah at San Quentin. At age 67, she's hanging up her prayer shawl at the end of this month. A prison rabbi from Stockton is set to take her place in January.