Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

by Rena Greenberg - Miami, Florida

February 7, 2016

The Rebbe’s View on Prisoners

At 716 per 100,000 of the national population, the incarceration rate in the United States is the highest worldwide, housing 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Its bloated system has prompted national and state governments to reevaluate. In a push to reform a U.S. criminal justice system that now has 2.2 million people serving time, President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison in July 2015. In early November, the Justice Department granted 6,000 non-violent offenders an early release from prison—the largest one-time release of federal prisoners ever.

Now an issue at the forefront of the national conversation, “it’s what we’ve been saying for 35 years!” says Chabad emissary Rabbi Mendy Katz. Katz is director of the Florida-based Aleph Institute, a Jewish humanitarian organization that provides critical services to families in crisis. In 1976, the Rebbe began publicly advocating for prisoners, raising awareness of the problems inherent in incarceration from a Torah perspective.

“The Rebbe had a very special place in his heart for the downtrodden. He did not believe in locking people up and just throwing away the key,” says Katz. Many of the Rebbe’s talks decried the practice of depriving prisoners the ability to live productively while serving out their punishment. The Rebbe was emphatic about helping Jewish prisoners precisely because so many of their basic human rights and freedoms had been taken away from them. He called upon Chabad emissaries to do whatever they could to support incarcerated Jews and restore to them their humanity.

Rabbi Yochanan Friedman of S. Cruz, CA, has more than a decade experience serving as a Chabad chaplain. “Any chaplain would agree that revisiting the idea that people have the potential to become better is a step in the right direction,” he says. Writing off an offender as an inherently “bad person” is not, he insists, a moral perspective. “It is not befitting a moral society to be willing to give up on a human being.”

Friedman believes the teachings of the Torah can help a person become healthy and productive with the knowledge that he or she has a vital part to play in the universe—even from the confines of a prison cell. “The idea that every Jew has an inherent bond with the entire Jewish people, with the Torah and with G-d, offers an inmate a glimmer of hope for a better life.” Giving an inmate these faith-based tools can also help prepare him or her for eventual re-entry into society as a law-abiding citizen.


Founded in 1981 at the behest of the Rebbe, Aleph Institute addresses the pressing religious, educational, humanitarian and advocacy needs of incarcerated individuals, and implements solutions to significant issues relating to the U.S. criminal justice system, with an emphasis on families and faith-based rehabilitation. Its various programs help Jews observe Jewish holidays and assist them with their daily Jewish practices, books, food items and materials during their prison stay. It also prepares them to reintegrate into society once they are released.

After spending close to a year in the county jail waiting to be sentenced, with still no visits from her children, Marcia finally met Aleph’s director Rabbi Katz during one of his routine monthly visits to the women’s penitentiary. By then Marcia was benefitting from some of Aleph’s programs, like their political advocacy that ensured kosher food for Florida inmates, free books and Jewish learning resources that the local chaplain got from Aleph. But she did not know that Aleph could help her with her children.

Harvey Main, who was introduced to Aleph through his local Chabad rabbi at the very beginning of his incarceration, says it is critical to have an advocate in the prison system. “The system is really not geared to meeting the needs of Jews and it is very important to have someone who knows how it all works to speak up and make sure we get what we need.”

Those needs may be spiritual, like asserting to prison officials that there really are that many Jewish holidays during the High Holiday season. But so many of the needs are simply practical, like helping them navigate the yards of red tape around daily things they used to take for granted.

When Katz learned that Marcia had not seen her children in months, he arranged for a volunteer to visit her ex-husband’s house and get him to sign papers allowing the children to visit. He then arranged for a driver to pick up the kids and drive them to and from the facility on a weekly basis giving Marcia and her children the priceless gift of time together every week.

She recalls that first visit which took place after more than a year. As she waited in the family visitation room for her children to enter, she began shaking. “I was so overwhelmed, I kept touching them and hugging them to make sure they were really there and I wasn’t dreaming.”

Understanding the very basic need for caring human connection, some of Aleph’s programs with the greatest impact are those that offer inmates contact with people, be they rabbis, mentors or other Jewish volunteers. Working in partnership with Chabad’s vast network of emissaries and hundreds of rabbinical students, many of whom are prison chaplains, Aleph runs a mentoring program, pairing individual inmates with professionals and guidance counselors who meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. “One way or another,” says Katz, Aleph reaches just about every Jew in prison.

“While we don’t have direct contact with every single one, especially since they come and go so often, we are connected with more than 3,000 inmates on a regular basis,” he asserts. The rest are offered services through their local Jewish or non-Jewish chaplains, all of whom work with Aleph in some capacity. “If there are 600 US prisons with Jewish inmates, we are working with 600 chaplains.”

“You Are Not Alone”

Rabbi Friedman says that he doesn’t think that “the Aleph student rabbis are aware of how much they do for the inmates.” Prisoners are astounded that these young people take time off from their vacation to “drive up and down the coast visiting people they’ve never met, and who they would otherwise probably never meet, just to be good to another human being.”

Main will never forget one rabbi who used to drive 3 ½ hours from New Orleans, every week, to his isolated prison “in the middle of nowhere” to study Torah with them. Or the Chabad students who slept across the street in a camper that Aleph rented in order to be there on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to lead services.

“Our priority has always been to tell these marginalized Jews, ‘You’re not alone, you’re not forgotten. There’s someone out there who cares about you.’ We’re there to comfort them, to advise them and to show them that the Jewish community cares about them,” Rabbi Katz says.

Friedman met one inmate whose violent gang life landed him in a high security facility. He’d never met a rabbi until a Chabad rabbinical student came to visit him. It proved a breakthrough moment for the inmate who was sure he’d been forgotten.

“He was shocked that someone had come to visit him,” Friedman says. “He told me he did not know who that student rabbi volunteer was, but if he ever met him again he’d want to tell him how that one gesture of kindness helped him change his life in profound ways.”

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