Aaron has not walked freely in 18 years. He grew up in Illinois with very limited access to Jewish community or education, and spent much of his adult life in and out of state custody, his latest stint a 22-year prison sentence that began in 2000 for home invasion.

Throughout much of his journey, a bright spot in the monotony and degradation of prison life has been regular visits from Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman and his sons working with the Chabad-sponsored Hinda Institute.

“There is currently only one other Jewish person in the facility where he lives,” says Scheiman, about the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling, 245 miles southwest of Chicago. “He does what he can under the circumstances, praying and studying Torah, observing the holidays, and whatever else is allowed.”

Aaron has expressed sincere contrition for his past behaviors and explains why he returned to his Jewish origins: “G‑d convinced my heart to return to my people, and Rabbi Scheiman’s love and respect for his Jewish roots inspired me.”

As he learned about Judaism from the Scheimans, he also enrolled in a carpentry course in prison. As part of the program, inmates were permitted to craft furniture to donate to a nonprofit organization. Aaron immediately thought of Chabad and F.R.E.E. of Niles, where Scheiman serves as director.

The synagogue had recently been refurbished, but one piece of furniture was still needed: a lectern, from which classes could be delivered by Rabbi Lazer Hershkovich of the local JLI chapter and congregants could place their prayer books at other times.

After the lectern was finally completed and all the paperwork for transferring it from prison was in place (a job almost as painstaking), the rabbi made sure to drive down for his monthly visit in an SUV that had enough room to bring back Aaron’s precious gift to a congregation he had never visited, but felt so close to.

Inmates Worldwide Visited During High Holidays

Aaron is but one of thousands of inmates in correctional institutions around the world served by Chabad-Lubavitch this High Holiday season.

The Aleph Institute assigned rabbinical students to officiate Rosh Hashanah services at more than 40 jails for some 500 Jewish inmates across the United States. These “Roving Rabbis” spent the holiday in motor homes and local motels near the prisons, including Fort Dix, N.J.; Allenwood, Pa.; and many other federal and state holding facilities.

Aleph also sent 900 High Holiday prayer books, 100 shofars and 8,000 apple-and-honey packets to inmates in 100 jails throughout the United States.

Looking forward to Yom Kippur, Scheiman noted that “Aaron expressed that though he can’t yet physically be in the synagogue, by investing his energy, blood, sweat and tears, in some way, he is inside the synagogue.”