Walking across the prison concourse, Paul was suddenly thrown to the ground. A skinhead with a swastika tattoo, the leader of the White Supremacist gang, glared down at him. “I never want to see you wearing that thing again,” he spat. “If you do, I’ll kill you.”

Paul had just received his kippah in a care package from the Aleph Institute, an organization that provides emotional, spiritual, and financial support to individuals behind bars and their families. That night, he stayed awake in his bunk, wondering if he should give in to the neo-Nazi’s threat, contemplating the choices that had landed him in this situation in the first place.

Paul grew up in a typical Suburban California Jewish household. He was 8 when his grandmother moved in, bringing a host of “crazy” Jewish traditions with her. On Saturdays, she would hide the car keys and unplug the TV, which drove Paul and his parents mad. When Paul turned 13, his grandmother snuck him out for a secret bar mitzvah. When his father found out, he was so enraged that he hit him. For Paul, Judaism was a burden; something to be kept secret.

As a teenager, he wrestled with insecurity and self-loathing, turning to drugs to dull the pain, and then to petty crime to sustain his habit. “You’re a druggie, a thief, and a cheat,” he would tell himself. But the self-hatred only drove him to commit more crimes, and the vicious cycle continued. Paul was in and out of county jail several times, and then served a five-year stint in a state prison.

Finally, in 2001, he joined a 12-step recovery program. Connecting to a Higher Power spoke to Paul’s searching soul. For nine years, he managed to live a normal life, even serving as a drug counselor. But the restless, empty feeling that had haunted him his whole life came back. Paul thirsted for a life of passion, for the thrill of soaring highs, something he only knew how to achieve with drugs. He relapsed, and this time he took part in a serious fraud scheme to help fund his addiction.

He was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in one of the toughest state facilities. Shortly after beginning his sentence, Paul received a letter from the Aleph Institute offering to help him in any way they could.

“My whole life I knew I was Jewish, but I pushed it to the side,” Paul says. “Suddenly, a group of Jews were showing me more care than anyone ever had. For the first time, I had an opportunity to connect to my people, get a real Jewish education, and discover all the customs I had never understood.”

Paul consumed all the educational material Aleph sent him. He started writing to an Aleph penpal, who answered his countless questions about Judaism. Everything, from saying Modeh Ani in the morning to Shema Yisrael at night, was new to Paul. Through his mentors at Aleph, he learned about the Rebbe and other Chassidic masters. Their teachings of an elevated, transcendent reality inspired him. Paul realized he had been searching for highs in all the wrong places. In Torah study and meditation, he finally began to feel like he was living truthfully.

One day, a rabbi from Aleph came to visit Paul in prison. They spoke for hours. “The rabbi was there to see other people too,” Paul says, “but he made me feel like I was the only one he had come to visit.”

The Aleph rabbi helped Paul put on tefillin and said the blessing word by word so he could repeat it. “Next time you come, you’re going to repeat the prayer after me!” Paul told the rabbi.

To help make that promise a reality, Aleph sent Paul a personal pair of tefillin which he started using every day.

Through regular correspondence with his penpal, Paul settled on the Jewish name Pinchas.

With his new name, he was ready to start looking like a Jew. So Aleph sent Pinchas a package with a kippah, tzitzit and some other ritual items. Unfortunately, when he wore the kippah for the first time, he was violently assaulted, his life threatened.

Lying in bed, deciding what to do, he remembered the sting of his father’s fist when he found out about his secret bar mitzvah. He recalled the aroma of his grandmother’s homemade challah, and thought about the warmth of his mentor and the joy he had found in Judaism, until, finally, he drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, Pinchas put on his kippah and stepped into the courtyard. Immediately, three men jumped him. They crushed his lungs and ribs, nearly stomping the life out of him. Miraculously, he survived and was sent to the infirmary to recover. During the weeks spent recuperating, he received a letter from the leader of the gang.

“I don't like you because you're a Jew. As a matter of fact, I hate you. But I have more respect for you than for the guys who assaulted you. Their job was to kill you and they didn't do it. You stood up for yourself. If you ever come back to the prison yard, you won’t have any trouble from me or my men.”

With newfound confidence, Pinchas threw himself into his Jewish studies and began to undertake more mitzvot, one by one. “My policy was to start with things I found easy and work my way up to the harder ones,” he says. He grew out his peyot and beard because that felt more authentic to his new identity. He started praying for several hours a day. “Prayer and meditation can bring me to tears. Sometimes it takes hours to recuperate. But unlike drugs, prayer is not an escape. It’s an ascent.”

Pinchas in his prison uniform during a visit with his mother.
Pinchas in his prison uniform during a visit with his mother.

Pinchas’s Jewish pride soon spread around the facility. When he met fellow Jewish inmates, he would encourage them to wrap tefillin. He started keeping Shabbat, and the Aleph Institute advocated for him to receive the kosher supplies he needed to observe Shabbat and the holidays in prison.

When Pinchas was diagnosed with stage four liver disease, the doctors told him he needed a transplant or a miracle. Aleph’s team advocated relentlessly for Pinchas to get the best medication possible, and for a transfer to a different facility where he would receive better medical care. Throughout his treatment, Aleph checked up on him to find out how he was doing.

In January of 2020, Pinchas was released.

Now in his 50s, Pinchas is an evolving chassid, digging deeper into his roots with support from his rabbi and friends. He recently opened a cutting-edge medical detox center fighting against opiate and substance dependence—one of the only places of its kind where Shabbat and kosher are kept, allowing Torah-observant Jews to receive the treatment they need without compromising their observance.

In a letter to the Aleph Institute, Pinchas wrote: “My mom is lighting the Shabbat candles and we are baking challah together. Her neshamah has also been awakened and this is all a result of the relationship I developed with the many people who work at Aleph … I want you to know that what you did for me set my life on an entirely different trajectory. I like to consider myself a baal teshuva and each day I strive to become a chassid. I know that it's unlikely I'll ever attain such distinction, but I am striving for it. I owe that dream to all of you.”

Pinchas baking challah with his mother.
Pinchas baking challah with his mother.