Sarah felt like the Earth had opened beneath her feet. Her husband had confessed to a crime and had been sent to prison. Her emotional support, the father of her children and the family's breadwinner was now incarcerated for years that would seem like decades as she was left to face their mutual responsibilities in the pain of solitude. Now she was forced to work full time, struggle for neutral answers to incessant questions about where Daddy went, face the neighbors who might smile politely but rush on past her. Sarah reached out, but there was no welcoming hand.

Esther revisited in silence her ninety-four years of life, and searched for ways she could have been a better mother, a better person; anything to have prevented her daughter's incarceration. She watched as friends looked forward with excitement to visits from their own daughters and embraces from grandchildren while Esther remained alone with an occasional phone call from her daughter, for whom freedom existed only as a memory and a hope for the future.

Esther and Sarah discussed these feelings at weekly meetings organized by the Aleph Institute. In spite of their age difference, they connected like sisters through their shared pain and prayers. Other family members of inmates expressed their misplaced guilt, their worry over financial pressures and their loneliness at Aleph Institute meetings. One woman's shyness and shame turned into reassurance as she surveyed the sympathetic faces around the room and said, "You all know. You really get it. You are all there." Just sharing the pain made the burden lighter.

Soon, Sarah began to feel as if she had been freed from her own prison, "It is the Aleph group meetings that make a real difference in my ability to get on with my life, to accomplish things again, to plan for my future."

Sarah's husband received a gift, a Jewish calendar, and he repeatedly thumbed through its pages and recalled holiday observances from his youth. His soul thirsted to learn more about his heritage and the Aleph Institute provided him with books about Judaism and a tallis and tefillin. They invited him to participate in correspondence courses and their pen pal program. Sarah reports that her husband is now a senior member of the prison's Jewish congregation, "We are both grateful to Aleph for this, as his active participation in the Jewish services and his leadership responsibilities have made a great difference to him spiritually, and to his morale and sense of self."

Rabbi Aaron Lipsker, who has directed the Aleph Institute for the last 8 years, lives by the motto: "A Jew is a Jew regardless of his environment." He adds, "Prisoners are treated as individuals at all points in the experience," from free legal counseling given before and during trial to programs designed to reintegrate ex-prisoners into society after their release.

"Regardless of what they have done, we are not in a position to judge the prisoners, but to provide them with what they need."

The Aleph Institute works with more than five hundred local, State and Federal prisons in the United States and provides learning "Regardless of what they have done, we are not in a position to judge the prisoners, but to provide them with what they need." opportunities, moral support and everything needed to observe both Jewish holidays and everyday mitzvot. While Jews comprise a very small segment of the prison population (1,700 compared to a total 1.5 million prisoners in the United States) every effort is made to ensure that these Jewish prisoners know that they have not been forgotten. Yeshiva students regularly visit inmates to listen to their stories, share a Torah thought, or provide a special care package for an upcoming holiday.

While it is difficult taking on the role of sole caretaker of her family, Sarah continues to find hope, support and strength through Aleph's support programs and has channeled her creativity into designing greeting cards for prisoners and their families. Yakova Baum, of the Aleph Institute, encouraged Sarah in this effort, and facilitated the correspondence between Sarah and her husband during his incarceration.

"I had forgotten who I was and what I am capable of doing," said Sarah. "The Aleph Institute's and Yakova's encouragement opened the door and the group activity let the sun back into my heart."