Brooklyn, NY – A Williamsburg rabbi and a former prison chaplain filed suit in Brooklyn federal court this week, charging both the federal prison system and the people he worked for with several allegations including religious discrimination.
Rabbi Naftali Ausch had been working as a chaplain at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park for three years when he first found himself facing issues at work in 2012.
His new boss, Reverend David Barry, seemed to take issue with Rabbi Ausch’s need to take time off from work for the Jewish holidays. According to Rabbi Ausch, Reverend Barry, a Catholic priest, would often tell him that there was nothing wrong with not observing his religious holidays.
“He would say to me, ‘It’s okay to violate the holiday; G-d will forgive you,’” Rabbi Ausch told VIN News.
Rabbi Ausch said that the problems began in earnest when Reverend Barry refused to allow him to take off for Rosh Hashana. According to Rabbi Ausch, he had emailed notification of the upcoming holidays to Reverend Barry months earlier, but the emails were not opened until the day before Rosh Hashana.
“He tried very, very hard to tell me I had to come in anyway but ultimately he let it go,” said Rabbi Ausch. “I thought I would be safe after that but then he tried it again on Yom Kippur.”
When that happened, Rabbi Ausch approached the warden, who told Reverend Barry that Rabbi Ausch was entitled to take off time for a religious observance.
“He tried to say he didn’t know about the holiday but the warden told him, ‘as a supervisor you should know these things. You have a calendar on your wall,’” recalled Rabbi Ausch.
Succos proved to be another source of contention but once the yomim tovim were safely behind him, Rabbi Ausch hoped that his troubles were in his rear view mirror as well.
But when Rabbi Ausch, who worked a Monday to Friday schedule, brought up the subject of Purim several months in advance, he suddenly found himself switched to a Sunday to Thursday routine. Protesting the swap, Rabbi Ausch was allegedly told once again that G-d would forgive him if he went into work on Purim.
Refusing to accept the schedule change, Rabbi Ausch was suspended without pay for two weeks. Feeling he had been unfairly targeted and subjected to repeated hostility at work, Rabbi Ausch filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“It was what they had told us to do during our training,” said Rabbi Ausch. “If you have a problem, you report it. Little did I know that by doing that I committed suicide.”
A new Jewish inmate brought into Metropolitan Detention Center during Rabbi Ausch’s suspension added more fuel to the fire. Although Rabbi Ausch was not scheduled to be at work, he went to bring the inmate’s tefillin to the prison, x-raying the tefillin himself to ensure that they contained no forbidden items.
“I would have asked someone about bringing the tefillin in but it was after 5 o’clock and none of the people I needed to speak to were in,” said Rabbi Ausch. “The previous warden had always said if I needed something for the religion, I should just do it because he didn’t want Washington coming after him for denying an inmate’s religious rights.”
When the inmate was released shortly thereafter on a Friday night, he told prison officials that he couldn’t take his tefillin and was leaving them for Rabbi Ausch to bring home the following week. Calling the prison to make arrangements to retrieve the tefillin, Rabbi Ausch discovered that he was in hot water and several months later, he found himself the subject of a Department of Justice inquiry because of the tefillin.
“They told me that I was under heavy investigation but that if I quit they would drop the investigation,” said Rabbi Ausch.
Investigators combed through Rabbi Ausch’s phone records asking why he had called specific numbers.
“They changed some of the digits of numbers I had actually called in their paperwork, and then said I was contacting the families of non-Jewish inmates,” said Rabbi Ausch. “But I never even called those numbers.”
Rabbi Ausch was fired from his job at the Metropolitan Detention Center in October 2015 and was told he had been terminated for bringing contraband into prison.
A year and a half later, Rabbi Ausch still finds it hard to believe that bringing a religious item into a prison was adequate grounds for his dismissal and his lawsuit charges that he was subjected a hostile workplace, unfair retaliation for his EEOC complaint and religious discrimination.
“I didn’t commit a crime,” said Rabbi Ausch. “I brought in tefillin. Officers who accidentally forget and bring in guns and jeopardize the whole building, they get reprimanded and go back to work. I brought in tefillin and they found a law to throw me out. Tefillin is worse than dynamite. It’s unbelievable.”