Given the paucity of resources available, how do incarcerated Jews observe Yom Kippur behind bars? They may lack access to siddurim, mahzorim, a shofar or even enough fellow Jewish inmates for a minyan, let alone running water where they can perform Tashlich in the weeks prior.
That’s where social service organizations like the Aleph Institute come in. Created at the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Aleph Institute is just one Jewish inmate outreach service that will spend this upcoming holiday connecting inmates to resources and to each other all over the country.
“We offer books and materials and visits, and anything a Jew needs to observe and practice in prison,” said Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute. From arrest to reintegration, organizations such as his help keep inmates connected to their Judaism and to their families.
Though the Aleph Institute is based in Florida, it works with inmates in more than 500 prisons across the country, Katz estimates, working with chaplains and securing permission to provide materials like challah, grape juice and lulavs. They are even, on occasion, able to finagle a Tashlich service for inmates, utilizing man-made lakes that some prisons have.
The nationwide scope of the organization is typical of some of the larger prison outreach services. Just ask Matthew Perry, treasurer/secretary of Jewish Prisoner Services International.
Based in Seattle, JPSI works with a wide range of inmates, from the 13 Jews currently incarcerated in Washington state to a single man in an Angie, Louisiana, facility. His work this time of year comes with special meaning, he says, and how could it not, when talk of teshuva and atonement is so prevalent? The JPSI runs a greeting card program for inmates, Perry says, that sees a marked increase in activity around the High Holidays. “People try to connect more with people they haven’t been in contact with for years,” he said. “There are more letters that ask questions about, ‘What can I do return to the old ways, or the ways I used to do things, and how can I make atonements for what I did?’”
He also associates the High Holidays with added headaches. “I spent 20 minutes this morning speaking to a facility chaplain, and he’s complaining that he doesn’t have enough volunteers or staff to, what he calls ‘babysit’ the Jewish inmates for all the hours that are needed to do the prayers for the High Holidays.” That, on top of typical challenges like unresponsive prison administrators and the well-documented phenomenon of non-Jewish inmates jockeying for support from Jewish organizations can make the High Holidays a hectic time.
But whatever headaches it causes, Katz said, the work itself is its own reward. “Every single Jewish organization on the street is trying to get people in the door,” he said. “And here we have thousands of people who are dying to be involved. You don’t have to cajole them!”
He continued. “The fact that me and hundreds of others are involved in trying to help people who have made serious mistakes in their lives, and committed some serious sins, if you would, and that the Jewish community is still embracing them as Jews and giving them a second chance and giving them an opportunity to repent is what the whole Yom Kippur is about.”