Even during quarantine, one often-ignored group has not been forgotten. Despite strict visitation limits, prison inmates throughout North America have remained the focus of the Aleph Institute, according to prison and law-enforcement officials, criminal justice experts, chaplains and rabbis who gathered this week for the 12th annual “Second Chance” Symposium.

The symposium, a two-day conference, usually takes place in person in Pittsburgh. Because of coronavirus restrictions, this year’s event on May 3 took place online via Zoom—and was equally well-attended.

Government officials, experts in the field, the head of corrections in Pennsylvania, and regional and head chaplains from prisons joined in, shedding some light on the critical work of the Florida-based Aleph Institute, both in the community and behind bars. Rabbis from around the region participated in the virtual event, including from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Betsy Jividin, director of the West Virginia Department of Corrections, thanked Aleph for its work in prisons, “not only for the inmates, but to the staff, who benefit from its good work throughout the year, directing and providing resources, and most importantly, bringing hope to the community.”

She also expressed gratitude to volunteers and rabbis who come regularly, despite all the challenges related to the virus, especially since most inmates are not granted other guests, and are cut off and estranged from family and other visitors right now.

Visiting During a Health Crisis

“Chaplains are the only ones permitted to visit during the crisis,” said Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute Northeast region. The center opened in Pittsburgh 30 years ago, with Vogel working with Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipsker and his Aleph team in Surfside, Fla., providing programs and services in the Northeast.

Vogel plans the symposium as close as possible to Pesach Sheini (second Passover), which is observed this year on May 8, “because it represents a second chance, and our whole mission is to provide a second chance for those who did wrong, a chance to rectify,” he explained. It was the time that Moses told the Jewish people in the desert that those who missed the first Passover are given a second chance.

Among state politicians who joined the online event was Pennsylvania State Sen. Jay Costa, who spoke of the crisis and how important the work of Aleph Institute is to the state, providing vital services to the community, particularly hope and resources for those in the prison system who have no one else to turn to.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor echoed those sentiments. Thankful that Aleph’s center in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood provides services for the community, he pledged to continue offering necessary government funding, as has been done in the past. Vogel said that money will go towards services for those incarcerated and for programs that help those with domestic violence, poverty and food insecurity in the community.

The head chaplain from the state of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Rev. Ulli Klemm, said “Aleph Institute continues to provide hope and support for those in prison, despite the difficult situation we find ourselves in, practicing that there should be ‘No One Alone and No One Forgotten.’ ”

Klemm noted Alef’s packages for Passover, when even during crisis this year they provided inmates with matzah, other Seder supplies and kosher food for the eight-day holiday. Vogel oversees this every Passover, including this year, saying “the state went out of their way and spent over $60,000, buying dry kosher meals from Meal Mart for inmates.”

Mike Davis, Department of Corrections and head of religious services for the Ohio prison system, also expressed appreciation to Alef for being there for Jewish inmates throughout the year, and particularly now as prisons through the United States grapple with the spread of COVID-19.

Senior U.S. federal judge Joy Flowers Conti spoke during the symposium, stressing Alef’s efforts in the area of alternative sentencing for individuals facing court. “We work with probation, so they don’t necessarily have to go to prison,” said Vogel, especially since courts have been closed now for almost three months.

Among Aleph’s achievements during this time include seeking housing in communities for individuals instead of incarceration, requested two weeks ago by federal and state courts.

A few months ago, Alef opened its doors to working with non-Jewish individuals as well. Its re-entry program, usually exclusively for Jewish inmates who are released from prison, arranges for initial needs, such as finding clothing and housing, gaining employment, medical insurance and providing the first month’s rent.

The final speaker, Marshall Dayan of the U.S. Public Defenders office for Alternatives to Death Penalty, discussed another pertinent issue, working hand in hand with Alef for those facing death row. Although Pennsylvania hasn’t put anyone to death in more than 20 years, five Jews currently sit on death row. He noted Aleph’s presence as being a vital resource in the lives of inmates and their families.