Chabad partners with Aleph to visit Jews in prison

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

They are the forgotten Jews: Jews in prison. Visiting them is not the prettiest work or the most glamorous rabbinic responsibility.

“Yet connecting with them goes to our core idea of a spark of Jewishness being in every single Jew,” said Rabbi Yosef Landa, Regional Director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.

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Every year rabbinic students spend a month visiting Jews in prisons around the country to help them maintain, or in some cases, rediscover their Judaism.

Friends Michael Kind, from Monsey, New York and Zalman Medalie, from Johannesburg, South Africa were recently in St. Louis to visit Jews in Missouri prisons as part of the Aleph Institute’s Prison Program.

The Prison Visit program is one of the services offered by the non-profit Aleph Institute. They have been providing religious articles, educational materials and support to Jews in prison for over 15 years.

They have over 1000 pairs of tefillin, — the largest collection of tefillin owned by one group, according to the organization’s Web site. The tefillin are used by Jewish inmates and given to the bar mitzvah age boys of fathers who are in prison and can’t afford to purchase their own set.

Landa said the Chabad of Greater St. Louis has coordinated the visits to the prisons in Missouri with Aleph for the past five years. Landa is also a member of the Religious Programming Advisory Council which assists the Missouri Department of Corrections with religious policies and programming.

“Prisons recognize the importance and value of religion in rehabilitation,” Landa said.

The rabbinic students volunteer in groups of two and cover a number of assigned states — and they cover almost every state. Kind and Medalie were assigned to cover five states this summer: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and South Dakota.

The young men admitted it required a lot of pre-planning to be on the road for a month.

“We’ve been eating a lot of tuna and Pringles,” Medalie said.

The students’ visits to the prisons are carefully coordinated. They conduct services, answer questions, address religious and spiritual needs, lay tefillin with the men, teach some Torah and hand out publications.

During the month of Elul they blew the Shofar in preparation for the High Holy Days.

The level of knowledge and commitment of the incarcerated Jews varies. Sometimes non-Jews attend the services because they have Jewish friends or are just curious about the religion.

“When non-Jews come, we teach the Seven Noahide Laws, the basic universal code of ethics and morality that applies to all humankind,” Kind said.

The students spoke about one Jewish gentleman in one of the prison who gathers other Jewish prisoners together to hold services and classes. Aleph sends him materials and some of the different courses they have available — from reading Hebrew to keeping Kosher and observing Shabbat and the holidays. He also keeps up correspondence with Jews at other prisons.

Sometimes Jewish inmates are willing to risk a lot to maintain their connection to Judaism. Kind revealed a story they heard about in their travels.

“We heard a story about two Jewish inmates who had one pair of tefillin between them,” Kind said. “It is illegal for prisoners to share personal items: if they are caught they can be put in solitary confinement and lose the personal item. Yet the level of commitment for these two men to lay tefillin every day was so strong that they would smuggle it to other every day. The Aleph Institute found out about the situation and sent them another pair of tefillin.”

The experience has been very rewarding and eye opening for the two friends.

“Everyone is grateful for our visits,” Kind said. “The chaplains thank us for coming. One inmate told us his only visits were the five times he has been visited by Aleph program students.”

Medalie and Kind said they learned to look at the people they visit as Jews — not prisoners — and not to ask them about their crimes.

“Every time we leave a jail, we get a high,” Medalie said. “We get thanked so much by everyone.”

Landa is very proud of the prison program and feels it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It meets an unmet need and is consistent with the values of Chabad, said Landa.

“The Chabad approach to fellow Jews actualizes their holy potential,” Landa said. “You reject the behavior, not the person.”