In a first for a federal prison, inmates at the Morgantown Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia joined family members, corrections officials and Jewish community leaders to dedicate a special Torah scroll written specifically for prisoners across the country.

Except for its location, the Torah dedication ceremony looked like any other: Celebrants filled in the holy scroll’s last letters with the help of a ritual scribe, and then danced with the Torah beneath a canopy and feasted on a special meal.

“We had an amazing response from the inmates and their families,” said Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization based in Florida that sponsored the dedication and serves more than 4,000 Jewish inmates and their families by providing kosher food, prayer services, learning opportunities and counseling programs. “It was a life-altering experience for them and a unique event, because they were able to participate with their families. The concept of Torah is to bring light into the darkest of environments, and that’s just what happened.”

Some 70 guests, including 22 Jewish prisoners at Morgantown, attended the ceremony. Called the “No Jew Left Behind Torah” in reference to the sometimes-forgotten members of the Jewish community, the scroll was sponsored by David and Eda Schottenstein and dedicated in memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov, a three-year-old girl who perished in a Jerusalem traffic accident. The scroll was also dedicated in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, directors of the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, and all the victims of the terrorist attacks there.

Ritual scribe Rabbi Moshe Klein, right, assists a celebrant in filling in one of the Torah’s last letters.
Ritual scribe Rabbi Moshe Klein, right, assists a celebrant in filling in one of the Torah’s last letters.

After the ceremony, one inmate, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he appreciated the chance to enjoy a happy occasion with his son.

“I’m in my fifth year in the [federal Bureau of Prisons] and this was the first, and probably only, opportunity that I’ve had to attend a religious ceremony with my six-year-old until I get out in 2016,” he said. “I spend so much effort in making sure that he keeps focused on the right things, and work very hard at keeping the family unit together and his moral compass [set].”

The “memories will last a very long time in my son’s mind,” he added.

Rabbi Shalom B. Lipskar, founder of the Aleph Institute
Rabbi Shalom B. Lipskar, founder of the Aleph Institute

According to Lipskar, many prisons with larger Jewish populations already have Torah scrolls on loan. The Morgantown Torah, however, fills a need expressed by inmates at some 450 institutions nationwide, and actually represents the collective efforts of that population: Many of the letters were “purchased” by prisoners and their families who donated money to the project, in some cases a dollar bill or a postage stamp.

The Torah, which will be housed in Morgantown on a temporary basis, will rotate through prisons where 10 Jewish inmates can form the necessary quorum for it to be read publicly.

“This Torah shows us that every person has a purpose, a goal, a mission in life,” said Lipskar. “This Torah will help the inmates to recognize their purpose in their environment and will help them to utilize their time properly and keep their families involved. Every Jew is important and has a connection to the Torah, regardless of the environment he is in.”