Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Having a loved one in prison is a transformative and painful journey for an entire family. Spouses, children, parents, and siblings are affected by the experience. Often there is sorrow and shame, anger and depression. Children are especially impacted. They want their dad (or mom) to come home. They feel deserted and afraid. Wives (or husbands) also suffer. They are alone with all responsibilities and often have less money coming in to cover expenses.

It was already June and Anna Katz, the mother of three from northern California, didn’t know how she would keep her kids busy all summer. After her husband made a bad business decision that landed him in prison in February 2014, life as she knew it came to an abrupt end. With her meager income, and no longer able to rely on a steady paycheck from her husband, Katz could barely afford the basics. Paying for summer camp for her children seemed out of the question.

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“I was worried about my daughter,” she said. “It’s so easy for kids to make the wrong choices and take a darker path. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to afford camp.”

The Aleph Institute stepped in. A nonprofit based in Florida, with additional offices in New York and Los Angeles, Aleph works to serve the needs of Jewish prisoners and their families throughout the U.S. prison system.

In 2011, Aleph launched the Summer Camp Placement and Scholarship Initiative, since renamed “The Aleph Institute Jonathan Stampler Camp Fund.” The endowment enables hundreds of children with parents in correctional facilities to attend Jewish summer camp by arranging all the logistics from beginning to end, while offering generous subsidies and scholarships to make camp a reality.

Aleph’s family services director Rabbi Shua Brook had been in touch with the family since shortly after the husband’s incarceration. The worried mother said, “The rabbis at Aleph were and still are my human angels here on earth. They became my extended family, helping in every detail of our life.”

Realizing the children had no summer plans and had never attended a Jewish camp, Rabbi Brook offered a full camp scholarship for all three kids, and found donors willing to cover the cost. The 13- and 11-year-old boys flew to overnight camps in the northeast while the youngest stayed in a local Jewish day camp. This summer, all three children have returned to those overnight camps and are having a blast.

Although Aleph helps hundreds of families with their urgent necessities – covering costs of housing, food, utility bills, etc. – and advocates for a long term solution of the family’s financial and emotional needs, Brook feels that certain “luxury” items, like camp can have an incredible impact on a child’s life.

“The benefits of camp are many,” he says. “First, it provides the parent at home going through the torture of having a spouse in prison a much needed respite. Also, it creates a fun and meaningful experience for the kids, in which they can make new friends and explore essential Jewish values. It helps the entire family have a positive Jewish experience and become more involved with their local Jewish community.”

This summer alone, Aleph sent 96 children to Jewish camps across the country. Forty-One children are attending overnight camps such as CTeen Heritage Quest, CTeen Xtreme, Camp L’man Achai, and CGI Poconos among others.

To reach out to Aleph for someone in need or to donate, e-mail family@aleph-institute.org.

The Aleph Institute, founded in 1981 at the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and headed by Rabbis Sholom and Aaron Lipskar, provides crucial financial, emotional, and spiritual assistance to thousands of shattered families – helping them persevere through extraordinary crises – while providing support for their loved ones in prison and mental institutions. Aleph’s benevolent mandate also encompasses spiritual assistance to thousands of soldiers in the United States Armed Forces across the globe.

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Shelley Benveniste is South Florida editor of The Jewish Press.