Dozens of volunteer rabbis traveled across the country to pray with inmates during the High Holidays and Jewish New Year.
Many of these convicted felons ̵1; some facing sentences of 4 to 30 years behind bars- are incarcerated for heinous crimes involving children, sexual assault and financial fraud, at some of the country’s most dangerous state and federal facilities.
During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and the holy day of Yom Kippur, which started on Sunday at sundown and ended at nightfall on Monday, many of these prisoners united with the rabbis, rabbinical and Hillel students from the nonprofit Jewish organization, The Aleph Institute, to seek forgiveness and repent for their sins.
Ronald, an inmate at the Coleman Federal Correctional Facility in Florida, who attended last week’s Rosh Hashana services was in awe and told DailyMail.com that ‘Rabbis Shmuli and Moshe lead one of the most complete and enjoyable services I’ve ever attended, inside prison or outside.’
‘They tailored the services to the knowledge and comfort level of the inmates, taking time to explain the Halachic basis for the prayers and practices, not merely reciting them.’
A rabbi is seen with an inmate perform the mitzvah of tefillin- a blessing is recited and it is customary to read to the Shema prayer
Inmates wearing tallit (a prayer shawl) over their prison uniforms read from the Torah as a rabbi blows the shofar during a Rosh Hashana service. The shofar is blown roughly 100 times during a traditional Rosh Hashana service
A group of inmates wearing yarmulkes (a Jewish head covering) looking joyous as they dance in a circle with a rabbi from The Aleph Institute
He added: ‘For myself and the others, who are separated from family during this significant time, their visit gave us the opportunity to feel a semblance of normalcy, and remind us that even in the worst of places we are not forgotten.’
At the Sumter Correctional Facility in Florida, a 58-year-old male inmate, who asked for anonymity, revealed how he had to hide being Jewish behind bars until he learned about The Aleph Institute. He soon found other Jewish inmates and recruited them into the program.
The organization has been his lifeline.
‘Regardless how I’m feeling, I will never miss attending these services and visits,’ he said. ‘The volunteers present us with a pathway to forgiveness of ourselves, and from Hashem.’
Though he is serving a 30-year prison sentence with an expected release date of 2035, he said, ‘I’ve been deeply touched and wondrously elevated by the constant vigilance of The Aleph Institute, the volunteers, rabbis and students.’
He added, ‘I would hate to imagine where I might be today into what darkness I would find myself were it not for their dedication.
At Pensacola Federal Prison, a 25 -year-old male, who was sentenced to 45-months in prison for wire fraud, said the services have been very ‘meaningful.’
‘In an incarceratory environment you often feel as though you’re down and out no matter how fortunate you may be on the ‘other side, but having people willing to help -such as the volunteeers that came– truly made us or at least speaking for myself specifically – feel human.’
He said he has already served 16 months of his sentence and told DailyMail.com: ‘They provide words of hope and inspiration in trying times as well as resolve to keep on pushing forward.’
This year, The Aleph Institute traveled to nearly 20 prisons in Florida, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania Rochester, New York, and New Jersey.
Many of the prison congregants wore tallit (a prayer shawl) over their prison uniform, and yarmulkes on their head (a skullcap and head covering worn by men during prayer) as they participated in Torah reading and listened to the shofar (a rams horn) being blown during the Rosh Hashana service.
While others inmates wore tefillin (a leather cube-shaped case containing Torah texts that is worn on the head, and leather straps that is tied around on the arm) as they recited the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah.
The spiritual journey has not only elevated and inspired the inmates attending the services but also left a mark on the volunteers.
Rabbinical student Mendel Goldberg, 23, spent two days at Fort Devens FMC in Massachusetts leading the Rosh Hashana services for thirteen inmates with another volunteer.
He told DailyMail.com it was his first time conducting services at the prison and described the experience as ‘surreal.’
‘It was humbling to be able to provide services for those who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend,’ he said, in part.
‘Finding the display of unity as the Jewish people as a whole turn to God on Rosh Hashana made me a little emotional.’
Rabbinical student Ari Katz , and another volunteer led the Yom Kippur services on Sunday at the Everglades Correctional Facility in Florida for thirty-six inmates.
During his time fasting and praying with the prisoners, he also got the opportunity to get to know some of the men on more of a personal level.
He recalled, ‘We were saying a prayer about repentance which is what Yom Kippur is all about.’
‘I explained the prayer to the prisoners and told them that everyone has regrets that they would like to repent for … past sins…things they’ve done that wasn’t in line with what G–d wanted.’
He added: ‘One prisoner completely lost it and for me that was a very real moment to watch… a beautiful moment.’
The founder of The Aleph Institute, Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipsker (pictured) started the non-profit organization at the direction of the Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Rabbinical students congregating with inmates who are learning Torah
An inmate is engaged with a rabbi as they learn about the Torah principles taught by members from The Aleph Institute
An inmate wearing tefillin and sitting with a rabbi during a one-on-one meeting
The prisoners pictured wearing yarmulkes (a skullcap worn by Jewish men during prayer) listening intently as a religious leader shares stories and prayers from the Talmud
The Aleph Institute started in 1981 and serves individuals of all backgrounds and faiths. It is rooted in Torah principles that emphasize the values of human dignity.
Their motto is ‘No one left. No one forgotten.’
Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, CEO of The Aleph Institute told DailyMail.com that the organization provides assistance to many different communities, but their overarching objective is to work with individuals that are institutionalized or in limited environments – prison environments, the military – anywhere that Jewish individuals are separated or disconnected from their local communities.
The prison program started as a grassroots effort with some local prisons in the Miami area, with roughly 20 Jewish inmates, who all had a desire to be more connected to their faith and have access to Jewish programming.
Rabbi Lipskar said: ‘Wherever they went, they told others that they met that there are rabbis and people who would respond to your needs if you reach out to them, so within a short time the program grew exponentially.’
Pictured: Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. He is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Though he died in June 1994, his teachings continue to live on
He said, today, their reach is approximately 900 institutions in the United States.
‘We operate, of course, wherever there’s a Jew incarcerated, but our services are not limited only to Jewish people,’ he said.
‘Any person of any background, race, religion that reaches out to us, we advocate for and we assist with whatever needs they have.’
Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipsker, founded The Aleph Institute under the direction of the Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
Rabbi Schneerson, known to many as ‘the Lubavitcher Rebbe’ or ‘the Rebbe’ was an Orthodox rabbi and the most recent Rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty.
He is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Though he died in June 1994, his teachings continue to live on.
Rabbi Lipskar, who has led services in the most extreme and sometimes dangerous conditions, including for the Jewish military personnel stationed on Guantanamo Bay, ‘Gitmo,’ or for Jewish inmates on death row, or in environments where chaplaincy, he explained, is not available.
‘We are there to bring them support. We are there to bring them that spiritual upliftment. We are there to bring them a connection without judgment,’ he said.
‘They are in the environments they’re in for the reasons that society has deemed that it’s necessary for them to be there or alleged to have done things, but our objective is not to be a judge. It’s not to be the jury on this matter.’
‘Our objective is just to be there to bring them some humanity, some love, some connection and acceptance, just as each one of us would want in our own lives.’