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Light Behind Bars


MIAMI, FL–For Kenneth N., the loneliness and despair of life behind bars has no parallel. “It was a denial of my essential humanity,” he says, reflecting on the years he spent at a correctional facility in Iowa, in punishment for dealing drugs.

Absent the preoccupations of life on the outside, the only thing Kenneth did have was time, stretches of empty time. “With all this time on your hands,” Kenneth says, “you get to doing a lot of thinking.” But without the guidance of a mentor or a rabbi, time becomes its own tormentor, breeding anger, bitterness and frustration, leaving the prisoner doubly incarcerated, body and soul.

That’s why the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based Chabad-Lubavitch organization that provides social services to individuals and families in crisis, sent rabbis to federal and state prisons nationwide this past weekend, where they led Rosh Hashana services, blew the shofar, and observed the holiday together. “Basically, our purpose is to connect with “forgotten” Jews, who are isolated from life as we know it,” says Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison programs for the Aleph Institute.

Moshe Barouk spent last Yom Kippur at FCI Coleman federal prison in Florida, and is spending these High Holy Days at a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Moshe is Aleph’s administrative director. He describes Shofar blowing at the prison as “an incredibly intense experience.” Some inmates, he says, have never before heard the sound of a shofar or participated in High Holiday services. “Prisoners are overwhelmed by the idea that here, where they feel so disconnected from any sense of community or identity, they nevertheless are able to nurture their spirit, and that in turn, sustains them.”

Established in 1981, Aleph provides inmates and their families with the emotional, spiritual and legal support to see them through their imprisonment, as well as rehabilitative programs to prepare them for life after their release. “For every person being sentenced to jail, ten others will suffer adverse effects,” says Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, who founded The Aleph Institute at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And Aleph’s professional team of counselors and Rabbis are always only a phone call away, with 1,000 collect calls and six hundred letters received monthly from inmates and their families attesting to that.

Holiday programs and visitation routes reach Jews at over 350 prisons nationally each year, and Aleph ships thousands of ritual materials and holiday packages before each holiday—the last shipment included Machzors (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer books), honey packets and shofars—ensuring that every one of the country’s 4,000 Jewish inmates have the means to observe the Jewish holidays. Aleph also arranges for Kosher meals and work schedules that allow prisoners to keep Shabbat and holidays just like Jews the world over, giving these inmates some sense of belonging to a community.

“Many people don’t want to be bothered with us ‘people behind the wall,’” Kenneth acknowledges. “Aleph sent someone to me when I felt totally forgotten.” It was a visit that reassured Kenneth that someone out there in the vast and busy world was thinking about him. And it would be followed by many more visits during which Kenneth would transform empty time into invaluable opportunities for spiritual growth and healing.

These days, Kenneth can be found with the people “behind the wall” every now and again. It’s not recidivism; it’s just that he remembers gratefully what Aleph did for him, and wants to do the same for fellow Jewish souls in distress.


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