Jewish inmates who ask for a Shavuot cheesecake must get it.
That’s what a three-judge panel of the Federal Court of Appeal ruled unanimously last week in a lawsuit brought by two Jewish prisoners who argued that the vegan meals the Michigan Department of Corrections served them were not. did not meet their kosher dietary needs.
Cheesecake was not in the original complaint filed in 2013 by Gerald Ackerman, who was released on parole last year, and Mark Shaykin, who argued that they needed kosher meat and dairy meals on Shabbat and the main Jewish holidays.
“But at trial, Ackerman said he always ate cheesecake on Shavuot, then Shaykin said the same,” recalls Daniel Manville, one of their lawyers.
A judge can change a lawsuit if more evidence is presented, Manville continued, but “no one thought you were going to ask a judge to order a cheesecake.”
This is exactly what District Court Judge Linda Parker did in January 2020, with her ruling that prisoners should be given dairy and meat meals as requested.
The state appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit panel upheld Parker’s decision on October 12. Parker, they didn’t have enough reason to upset her about it.
The decision even surprised some rabbis.
“You can’t make things up like that,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center on Long Island. “Having a court demand that cheesecake be served on Shavuot is a bit cheesy.”
Rabbi Joe Hample of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va., who previously served as chaplain at Pelican Bay State Prison in Calif., Called the move “a bit of a stretch.”
And Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Council of Rabbis, said that while there is kosher accommodation for Jewish inmates in New York City, “there are no cheesecakes or blintz being served. in Chavouot ”. “Yes, it is a custom,” he continued. “Would that increase the joy of the festival?” I am on. But this is not an obligation. “
The meaning of cheesecake
It was the policy of the Michigan Department of Corrections to serve all prisoners who requested a diet consistent with their religious practices a kosher vegan meal, which they believed would meet a wide range of religious dietary requirements.
It didn’t match theirs, both Ackerman and Shaykin argued.
The 24-page appeals court decision cited Ackerman and Shaykin’s testimony that they grew up keeping kosher and “that their religious texts require meat and dairy products with meals on certain days.” He cited Shaykin’s reference to a provision in the Code of Jewish Law which says that “[e]everyone should prepare fine meat, fish, choice wine, and other delicacies for Sabbath meals to the best of their ability.
The appeals court also noted that Ackerman had testified that “while removing it reduces the sincere meaning” of the party. And he said Shaykin explained “that when he cannot eat meat and dairy as required, he is” empty of everything. “
As for the cheesecake, during the trial, Shaykin said he was “supposed to eat it” on Shavuot. He also said he believed that “any dairy product would meet this requirement,” but added that he was not a rabbi and therefore could not speak definitively on the issue. topic. But strictly required or not, he said, “that would fulfill [his] religious beliefs in a better way “to have a cheesecake.
Cheesecake on appeal
The appeals court wrote that “religious texts do not say cheesecake is compulsory”, but also noted that “there is also evidence to suggest that these prisoners sincerely believe that cheesecake is compulsory on Shavuot”.
The public prosecutor stressed that the two men were free to buy kosher meat and dairy products from the prison police station twice a month, and that they had instead bought hygiene products, popcorn and coffee. But both men said the meat and dairy products sold by the commissioner could not meet their religious needs as they were only small snacks and the Code of Jewish Law requires full servings to be eaten at the time. meals. In addition, prison regulations prohibit bringing outdoor food into the dining room.
The Department of Corrections director of food service management said providing all Jewish inmates on a vegan diet with a piece of kosher meat on requested days would cost the state about $ 10,000 per year. Providing milk to these same prisoners would not increase costs as the state already buys enough milk for these prisoners. But they are not allowed to have it because they are vegan.
(Manville said there are currently 70 Jewish prisoners in Michigan who have requested kosher meals.)
The appeals court rejected the expense argument, noting that the Department of Corrections’ annual food budget was $ 39 million “and $ 10,000 is just a small drop of 0.02%. in that multi-million dollar food budget. “
In affirming Justice Parker’s ruling in favor of the prisoners, the Court of Appeal concluded that the Michigan Department of Corrections “exerts a considerable burden on the sincere religious beliefs of these prisoners.”