For Jews in prison, incarceration can keep them isolated from their family and their faith. But thanks to the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit, they and their loved ones receive some much-needed help from an organization that has been providing assistance for more than three decades.
In fact, the institute’s Yeshiva in Prison program recently expanded to include a visit for the first time to female prisoners, said Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of the institute.
The program spans three days of interactive classroom-style work. Yeshiva volunteers work with inmates in small groups or on a one-on-one basis to provide introspection using the Torah. Inmates learn how to live as a Jew despite their surroundings.
The program covers many topics, including Jewish law, ethics, explanatory prayer services, kosher dietary laws, faith and reason, and Kabbalah. Daily afternoon lectures focus on the idea of personal responsibility, self-control and the skills for accepting authority.
The idea is to help channel the inmate’s energies in a positive manner, which could improve a sense of personal responsibility, explained the rabbi.
THREE-DAY PROGRAM FOR WOMEN
Earlier this month, program volunteers Rebbetzin Chanie Lipskar, Judy Adouth, Leah Lipskar and Rochel Katz went to Coleman Federal Prison Camp near Orlando, Fla., for their first time teaching female inmates.
The three-day sessions included a full-day program—8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.—of interactive classroom-style learning. The volunteers also divided the women into smaller focus groups, each concentrating on a prepared course subject by the teacher.
Katz said of the experience: “I’ve gained as much as the inmates have, if not more.”
She alluded to preconceptions regarding inmates and prison culture in general, and noted that they can often be misguided. “Some of the women were doctors, and lawyers—educated women with tears running down their faces in gratitude for myself and my colleagues taking the time to spend the day with them,” she said.
Chaplain Yolanda Garcia works there, and called the Yeshiva program “awesome.”
“I think the women felt a sense of womanhood being around Jewish female representatives,” she said. “I actually received a ‘thank you’ card from them. It taught them how to get along with each other and pray with each other.”
Garcia welcomed the opportunity for the program to return to the prison camp. Rabbi Lipskar responded that the group will absolutely come back to female prisons.
WORK THAT TOUCHES THOUSANDS
The Aleph Institute was founded 32 years ago by Lipskar’s uncle, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. The organization says it regularly services more than 4,000 Jewish inmates and nearly 6,000 of their family members. The institute has 35 employees, including a dozen rabbinical positions and many volunteers.
“From a personal perspective,” said Lipskar, “it’s very rewarding to make a tangible impact in someone’s life at very challenging times. It certainly is very special.”
Beyond the Yeshiva program, the institute’s prison work encompasses a range of activities at the federal, state and local levels.
During the High Holy days, for example, it helps conduct more than 300 services in prison. Much of Aleph’s inmate advocacy work is related to basic issues, Lipskar said, such as inmate placement, medical concerns and what materials can be contained in a religious library.
The foundation does not provide lawyers or legal advice, but it can be involved in the legal process, he said, such as creating alternative programs for offenders. If a medical professional is found guilty of prescription fraud, for instance, Lipskar said the institute could suggest he work a certain number of hours at a rehab center, perhaps cleaning bed pans, to appreciate the damage he has done.
“We try to help people through the entire process, and to maintain familial relations,” said the rabbi.
To that end, the institute has a gift program, sending birthday or Chanukah presents to children in the name of the inmate. There’s even a pen-pal program to write to Jewish inmates, both of which add moral support to their prison stays.
In addition to its prison-related efforts, the institute has been helping Jews in the military for 20 years now.
It works with close to 5,000 Jewish service members and their families through Aleph Operation Enduring Traditions. That support could take the form of advocating for the rights of Jews, providing training to military chaplains, sending food packages to personnel and even distributing camouflaged pocket-size Torahs.