Shabbos meals, public menorah lightings and distributing candles are some of the ways we reach out and share the warmth of Judaism. These encounters happen on street corners, around dining room tables and any other typical place of human interaction. But what about those who are behind bars? Are they to miss out on these uplifting Jewish experiences?
Many Jewish inmates feel abandoned by their families, synagogues and communities. Prison can be a very lonely place for them. The Jewish population is less than one percent of the total prison population. The Lubavitcher Rebbe requested that Jewish inmates should be visited specifically because they are neglected by the wider community. In response to this call, Aleph Institute created a summer program to ensure that every last Jewish inmate is visited.
Their team of volunteers provides nearly 4,000 Jewish men and women in hundreds of federal and state prisons across the country with Jewish experiences, education and the comfort of knowing that they are never alone.
This year 26 volunteers in 16 groups will travel through 43 states covering about 130 federal prisons, 400 state prisons and 10 county jails on a mission to reach as many Jewish people incarcerated as possible.
When facing perhaps the most challenging of life’s conditions, spiritual connection and development is crucial. The love and concern expressed by these young visiting Rabbis towards fellow Jews replaces the incarcerated person’s feelings of isolation with belonging; their despair becomes hope. The organization also distributes thousands of prayer books, holy texts and ritual materials together with how-to videos.
Abba Wolosow and Saadia Weingarten visiting Davis Correctional in Oklahoma describe their interaction with one inmate: “Although we were only able to speak to him through a cage we were able to put on tefillin through the small opening.” Some also reported celebrating birthdays on their visit and dancing.
The feedback from the inmates have been equally heartwarming. “I wanted to let you know the two young students from Aleph visited me…we had deep spiritual discussions that I needed. Please could you let their supervisors know how inspiring their visit was for me.”
Rabbi Avraham Y. Zajac shares with us some of his thoughts as Visitations Coordinator: “As the coordinator my job is a large part the nuts and bolts, but it’s the response and results that drive me. I have a chance to read the reports and feedback which is sometimes painful, sometimes inspiring and mostly grateful. I know that through the volunteers my work is helping these “forgotten” people connect and it’s about bringing them the little light they need to persevere in the darkest places.”
Aleph Institute is on a mission to reach out to as many Jewish inmates as possible, spreading the warmth of Judaism and uplifting their morale in the spirit of Jewish love and unity.