The Okeechobee Correctional Institution in Florida is certainly no place for a nice Jewish boy. But that didn't stop 10 young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis from spending three days there last week teaching Torah, singing, dancing and sharing their love of Judaism with 18 Jewish inmates incarcerated there.

The three-day Yeshiva in Prison program, which ran at both the Okeechobee Correctional Institution and the South Bay Correctional Facility, is a project of The Aleph Institute, an organization founded nearly 25 years ago by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar under the auspices of Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization provides a multitude of programs and services for families in crisis, Jewish inmates and Jews serving in the military.

The program teaches inmates the basics of Judaism, and is infused with sparks of Chassidism and teachings from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. Besides textual study, participants pray, put on tefillin, sing Jewish songs, wear tzitzit and are counseled by their teachers. The entire group also eats kosher meals together; each meal begins with the blessings recited before eating and culminates in a spirited rendition of Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals.

"It's exciting to me to see these people who are not able to live like Jews get excited about Judaism and Torah learning," said Rabbi Yossi Stern, who helped coordinate both of this week's simultaneous Yeshiva in Prison programs.

Life-Changing Experiences

Jewish prisoners benefit from an intense three-day learning program sponsored by The Aleph Institute.
Jewish prisoners benefit from an intense three-day learning program sponsored by The Aleph Institute.
At the Sept. 5 graduation ceremony, participants shared their feelings on how the three-day program had impacted each of their lives.

Alex Anaximander is two weeks away from being released after 10 years in prison; at the end of this month, he will be moved to a halfway house in Orlando. Despite a long criminal history and multiple incarcerations, Anaximander believes that Yeshiva In Prison and other Aleph Institute programs he has benefited from over the past decade will ensure that he stays clean from now on.

"The director of the halfway house where I'm headed has already made arrangements to keep me connected with the Chabad in Orlando," said Anaximander. "I know I'll stay free because of the Torah I've learned."

Florida Department of Corrections staff members agree that programs like Yeshiva in Prison effect positive change in the inmates.

"I don't know what happens when they get out," one guard said, "but we see a major difference while they're here."

Reverend Dr. Linda Lowry, the institution's senior chaplain, was grateful for the dedication of The Aleph Institute's team of rabbis.

"You brought light into their darkness and encouragement through the generosity of your time," she told the group. "All of us have been blessed by your presence with us."

"Find a teacher and you've found a friend," announced an inmate who identified himself as Moshe Zeev. "It doesn't matter how old that teacher is. If he teaches you just one thing, the Alef of the Alef Bet, you have to respect him as you would respect your father."

Last month, Charles Schaefer celebrated his 37th birthday. It was the fifth birthday that has passed since his arrival at Okeechobee, and he will observe nine more before he is scheduled for release. Like many of his fellow inmates, Schaefer has a troubled past; this is not his first time behind bars.

"I've finally found the answers to questions I've had my entire life," Schaefer told the group. "And the ones I didn't find, at least now I know where to look."