As Jews throughout the world head to synagogue this weekend to spend the holiest day of their calendar immersed in prayer and fasting, the often overlooked population of Jewish prisoners will likewise participate in services of their own. All told, volunteers affiliated with the Bal Harbour, Fla.-based Aleph Institute – a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that caters to the needs of Jewish military personnel and inmates – will fan out to 30 different prisons across the United States to make sure that Yom Kippur doesn’t pass them by.
For both inmates and the rabbinical students who lead them in prayer, the chance to shine some spiritual light behind prison walls can be a rewarding experience.
“During Yom Kippur, I spent all day long with them praying,” says one former inmate, who for privacy reasons prefers to go by his initials, I.N.
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“Aleph really takes care of the inmates,” continues the man, who was incarcerated in a Florida prison from 2007 to 2009. “The federal system [often times] doesn’t do much.”
Directed by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the Aleph Institute regularly provides Jewish inmates with ritual items such as prayer shawls and books. In sends out care packages in advance of major holidays and coordinates counseling for the family members of those behind bars.
In preparation for this Yom Kippur – which begins Friday night – the organization sent out approximately 4,000 bulletins to 400 prisons around the country offering guidance and instructions for the fast day. It’s dispatching volunteers to those locations housing 10 Jews or more. (Last week, the same volunteers spent the New Year’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah in 21 prisons.)
Rabbi Yossi Stern, who coordinates Aleph’s visitation and education initiatives, says the organization collaborates mainly with federal prisons because of special arrangements with Washington. Many state prisons, however, are also part of the group’s outreach, he adds.
Levi Kazarnovsky will be returning to the Federal Correctional Institution in Terminal Island, Calif., where he spent Rosh Hashanah camped out in an RV in the prison’s parking lot.
The 49-year-old, who’s been volunteering for Aleph for years, says he’s looking forward to returning.
“You’re helping people where it’s needed most,” he explains. “You can’t kid yourself. It’s difficult work. Security, clearance, it’s always a hassle, and you’re always limited to certain times. They could have a lockdown and you’ll be sent away. But you know when you get there and do it, you’re making a difference.”
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For holidays not restricted by fasting, Kazarnovsky packs food and eats in his vehicle. Inmates are typically required to eat in their cafeterias; some institutions offer kosher food.
The Terminal Island facility houses mainly older inmates. Most of the Jewish prisoners have no formal religious background.
“For many it’s the first they’ve gotten in touch with Judaism at all,” says Kazarnovsky. “They say, ‘Here I am in prison meeting rabbis and learning my religion.’ It’s ironic, but unfortunately this is the place where they get some taste of Judaism.”
Eli Hassan, 18, a New York native, will be returning to a low-security prison in Pensacola, Fla., where he and friend Yisroel Pruss spent an energetic Rosh Hashanah.
“Last Friday morning, the prisoners asked us to come back to do services Saturday morning,” says Hassan. “On Saturday morning, they asked us to come back in the afternoon. In the afternoon, they asked us to come back at night” for the traditional Havdalah service marking the close of Shabbat.
Hassan and Pruss spent three and a half hours that afternoon sitting in a circle with about 22 inmates, talking, singing and sharing personal stories. In the evening, they played a piano and guitar to brighten the inmates’ spirits.
Such dedication impresses former prisoners like J.C., who spent six and a half months behind bars in 2007.
“They’re very, very motivated and hard-working people,” he says. “They do such good work.”