By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is one of the holiest times of the year in the Jewish calendar, with both Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, not to mention the Sukkot holiday afterward.
And in correctional institutions around the New York area, as well as other parts of the country, the Aleph Institute (“Aleph” is Hebrew for “one” or the letter A), part of the Brooklyn-based Chabad network, is there to help them. Aleph has arranged six services behind bars in the tri-state area, complete with a rabbi and a Torah scroll.
Rabbi Menachem Katz of Aleph says that organization has been around for about 30 years. It differs from the services offered by the typical prison chaplin, he adds.
“The chaplain is there to do paperwork [on prisoners’ cases] and to give them a class on Judaism and a service,” he said. “We’re there for everything. We send out prayer books, matzot, candles, menorahs, honey, apples (used in Jewish holidays). We also help families arrange for kosher food for the prisoners. Of course, we work with the chaplains.”
Quite a few Jewish prisoners who knew nothing about Judaism, he said, become interested while behind bars. Asked if he has had inspirational experiences working with prisoners, he says, “I have these experiences every day.” For example, he met one prisoner who hadn’t been at a Jewish service in 45 years. He’s also met several who hadn’t known they were Jewish until recently.
The organization tries to help every Jewish prisoner in the country, and is particularly active in New York, Florida and California. Its web site details a trip that Katz and another rabbi took across the country, driving over 3,800 miles to visit 40 prisons.
Chabad is the outreach arm of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher Hasidic movement.