Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

by Rena Greenberg - Miami, Florida

February 7, 2016

Tricky Transitions

Aleph’s programs have been designed to meet four goals for the inmates, Katz explains. “We want to help ensure that prisoners are sane on their release. We want them to know that there’s a Jewish community who cares about them. We want them to come out as law abiding members of society, and we want them to be able to live a Jewishly engaged and meaningful life.”

While the horror of incarceration ends with release from prison, freedom can also mark the beginning of a new set of problems. When an inmate returns to civilian life, Aleph connects them with their local Chabad House and does their best to assist them with job applications, medical needs and housing, depending on need. Limited by budget constraints, the organization often relies on Chabad emissaries on the ground to assist with support after the release.

“Unlike other organizations, we aren’t really funded by the people we service,” Katz says, explaining that he wished he had the resources to properly support the reentry process. “While some of our constituents are not financially able to support our work, many who can don’t because they want to put that sad and painful time of their life behind them.” Still, Chabad rabbis do whatever they personally can to help inmates out as they start living their normal lives.

Marcia got out six months early for good behavior. On that first Saturday after her release, she watched as her son was called up to the Torah at a large Chabad synagogue. Standing next to him was another bar mitzvah boy, Rabbi Katz’s son, Levi, also celebrating his milestone transition into adulthood. The two could not look more different: Mike, the biracial son of a 39-year-old single mother on parole, who less than a year earlier had no connection to his Jewish faith, and Levi, a young Chabad boy who grew up in the thick of Southern Florida’s Orthodox Jewish community.

Both were called up to the Torah equally, both were lifted on chairs in the middle of a dancing circle of rabbis, both celebrating the next step in their life journeys. It was the crowning moment for Marcia and Rabbi Katz, who played a major role in seeing Mike and Marcia to this point.

After her release, Rabbi Katz helped Marcia find affordable housing in a decent neighborhood and reached out to her brother, who agreed to help pay for the deposit. “Rabbi Katz helped me through every step. He helped me turn on the electricity, he called me every day, he invited us for Friday nights.”

Today, Mike is in yeshiva and attends Shabbat services every weekend. Marcia attends synagogue when she can, as the busy mother is now working two full time jobs. Abigail maintains a high GPA at her high school where she is in a special pre-medical school track. Fully integrated into a Southern Florida Jewish community that once seemed so foreign, the Singers are looking ahead with hope.

Rabbi Friedman says Marcia’s story is not unique. He recalls a former inmate who contacted him years later to thank the rabbi for helping turn his life around. As the chaplain began to protest his praise, the inmate insisted: “Don’t tell me you were just doing your job. You were doing what the Rebbe taught you to do. And it worked.”

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