By Larry Gordon
In a sense, they have hit bottom. They are down and out, often with nobody to turn to except the good people at the Aleph Institute. They are Jews in jail and prison, and as Purim and Pesach approach, we are all asked to think about them on some level.
The large number of people incarcerated in the United States is an issue in the campaign for the presidency. Jewish prisoners make up a tiny fraction of the more than 2.2 million people who are currently in these prisons scattered around the U.S.
So how many Jews are actually imprisoned? According to Aaron Lipskar and Mendy Katz, who work around the clock as they deal with the needs of Jewish prisoners, there are currently 4,000 prisoners who identify themselves as Jewish. If you are interested in Orthodox Jewish inmates, the number bandied about is around 250.
The subject of Jews in jail comes to the fore particularly at this time of year. The Aleph Institute teams are gearing up to send Megillahs, mishloach manos, and even graggers to Jewish prisoners. To whatever extent possible, taking into consideration the restrictions of the environment they find themselves in, they can celebrate the festive holiday.
The preparations for Passover–four weeks down the road–are even more painstaking and challenging for the people of Aleph. In our conversation over the phone earlier this week, Rabbi Katz, speaking from his office in South Florida, said that next week he will be traveling to New Jersey, where a friend and donor to the organization has made a warehouse available for the preparation of packages for Pesach to be sent to prisons and prisoners around the country.
The Aleph Institute has its origins in the 1970s, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe made mention in a discourse of his concern for the well-being of Jews serving time behind bars. Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar, the energetic longtime rabbi of The Shul in Surfside, Florida, answered the Rebbe’s call and said that he wanted to take the initiative to reach out to Jewish inmates. The Rebbe started the process by writing a check to serve as the catalyst to begin the new group’s activities.
Over the last 40 years, Aleph has provided hope for the future to those who would otherwise be languishing hopelessly in prisons. And they continue that life-giving and lifesaving work today as well.
Rabbi Katz says that the relationships they have developed with prison officials allows them in some instances to intervene and arrange for proper placement for inmates so as to facilitate their religious observance.
Jews are not immune to running afoul of the law. The community’s roots in Bible or Torah inspiration over the generations might be part of the reason why offenses punishable by imprisonment are committed so seldom by Jews in this country. The fact that Jews consist of only 2.7% of the national population is an obvious reason as well.
Though the numbers are small, they are nevertheless a little too high for many of us. I don’t know what it is like in other communities, but in our community the idea of imprisonment brings with it a badge of shame. After all these years, it is still shocking when word trickles down that a member of our community is going to jail.
On the matter of certain noteworthy cases, the discussion with the Aleph personnel is sensitive but still open, as some of these cases are public and in the news. For example, we discussed the case of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, a name well known and a man who has now been imprisoned for almost 7 years of a 27-year sentence. Rubashkin is serving his time at the medium-security facility in Otisville, New York. The reason for the higher-level prison is a result of the length of the sentence and the amount of money involved in the crime the prisoner was ultimately convicted of.
Otisville is better known for its so-called “camp,” where low-level offenders are housed. Aleph knows this facility well, as it is the one preferred by observant Jews if they have to serve a prison term.
Both Aaron Lipskar and Mendy Katz know almost all of the inmates there well. This location is preferred because, as Katz says, it’s the one prison in the country where there is a minyan three times a day and where yamim tovim like Purim and Pesach can be properly observed. Or at least they can be celebrated or observed as well as possible under the circumstances.
A more recent case, the one where several members of the New York community were convicted of involvement in attempting to force a man to give his wife a get by threatening him with violence, has also been prominent of late on the Aleph Institute radar screen.
As might be expected, the U.S. Prison Bureau is a cold bureaucracy concerned with whatever rehabilitation or punishment prison offers rather than involving itself in the personal needs of individual prisoners. The idea of a Megillah reading for Jewish inmates, or even a Pesach Seder that goes on to midnight even though there is a usual 9 p.m. curfew, is precisely amongst the accomplishments of Aleph over the last four decades.
Arranging for Jewish prisoners to serve their time in the most proper environment possible is another challenge frequently within the organization’s purview. Aleph officials told us that while Rabbi Mendel Epstein–sentenced to 10 years in the get case–is in need of medical care and was referred to the Butner, North Carolina prison hospital, it now seems that his sentence will be served at Fort Dix, New Jersey–a low-security facility, where he will be closer to home and his family.
Others involved in the same case will for the most part be going to the “camp” at Otisville. This is despite being involved in what has been categorized as a violent crime, which would not ordinarily qualify them for this minimal-security type of confinement.
Over Purim, 150 young men will be visiting Jewish prisons around the U.S. in order to read Megillas Esther for the inmates. The prisoners–many alone and in far-off places, distant from friends and family–will observe a traditional Purim. And a few weeks later, they will be receiving provisions for Pesach and special permission to attend a Seder led by many of these same young men who are heeding the Rebbe’s call not to forget that part of society in the nation’s prison system.
The observance of Purim and Pesach for inmates is probably the more well-known aspect of what the Aleph Institute does. Beyond these high-visibility events are the everyday requests from Jews in jail for kosher food where it is not otherwise available. Katz says that Aleph has purchased over 100 pairs of tefillin to fill requests from inmates and wherever possible to help in providing and bringing some semblance of Jewish life to them.
I cannot write a prison essay without mentioning Dovi Mutterperl, who receives this newspaper in the maximum-security facility in Fallsburg, New York. Dovi is an impressive young man who got into trouble as a teenager and was sentenced to nine years of confinement. Today, he is a new person and will hopefully be out by June 2017. Mutterperl does not have to be in a maximum-security facility but has chosen to remain there because it is located in the Catskills, near frum communities. As a result, he receives a lot of visitors, especially over the summer, and local yeshivas send students there to visit and put together minyanim on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as well as on some of the chagim.
So no matter how you spin it, it is not an attractive situation to be in. Mendy Katz says, “In prison, you lose everything. As a result, many turn to and try to get in touch with religion. That is when we are there for these Jewish inmates. They appreciate that they are not forgotten.”
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