Jewish Law Logo Jewish Law - Commentary/Opinion
Not Looking Forward To The Holidays
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar
Isaac M. Jaroslawicz, Esq

Not Looking Forward To the Holidays
- A look at a lost segment of our Jewish family

Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar
Isaac M. Jaroslawicz, Esq

Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar is the Chairman and Founder of The Aleph Institute.

Isaac M. Jaroslawicz is Aleph’s Executive Director and Director of Legal Affairs.

Both may be reached at 9540 Collins Avenue, Surfside, Florida 33154; (305) 864-5553.
To learn more about The Aleph Institute and its important work on behalf of families, you can visit Aleph’s Internet site at

As summer advances to its conclusion and we pass through the Three Weeks of sadness and mourning, we begin to anticipate the upcoming Yomim No’ra-im -- the Days of "Awe." We prepare with cleaning and shopping, go to Shul, see our families and friends -- and pray together for a healthy and happy New Year.

Susan Berger and Esther Singer (not their real names) are having a problem to properly prepare their homes for Yom Tov. There is definitely no shopping for them or their children -- and won’t be for the foreseeable future. They look forward with dread to the upcoming holidays. They don’t know who they’ll see or speak with in Shul, if they decide to go at all. They, too, are in awe -- in awe of what is being said of them; they are ashamed and alone.

You see, Susan and Esther are the spouses of two Jewish men who are in prison. Together with the trauma, complications and silent suffering of having a husband, father and breadwinner in jail, these two women have been shunned in their synagogues, their children have been mocked at school. Twelve-year-old Yaakov was actually not invited to his shul friends’ homes, for reasons he only harbored deep in his little heart and mind. The husbands on whom they’ve always depended for income, who were their heads of household, their protector and who loves them deeply, will not be home for Yom Tov -- or for any Yom Tovim for the next three or four years.

It’s a problem that more and more Jewish families are facing. As society tempts us with material things -- some fall prey to the dark side of the choices available. Easy money, drugs, lack of respect for government, greed and sometimes anger and violence -- these are the stumbling blocks over which some may fall.

And what a fall it is. Susan’s husband, Jack, was a small businessman who, when trying to obtain a mortgage on the family’s new home in upstate New York, saw little downside to overstating his income on the application. He didn’t realize that what he was doing was really "wrong" -- after all, the bank had enough money, didn’t it? He certainly didn’t imagine the consequences when he could not pay his obligations and was forced to default.

Neither did Esther’s husband, Avrohom. He was constantly filling out one government aid application or another. Financial aid for students, work-study programs, grants of one kind or another were the norm. He thought nothing of it when the Rabbis in the Yeshiva’s financial aid office walked him through various programs. "We can’t survive without it," he understood full well. And, if he had to understate his family’s income or fudge on a question or two . . . well, it was "l’shaim shamayim," wasn’t it? And everyone else was taking advantage of government programs, too, weren’t they?

Maybe it was and maybe they were, but neither provided a defense when Avrohom was arrested for fraud. The lawyers wanted tens of thousands of dollars just to proceed through the early stages of the case. Bail cost thousands more. And then the really bad news came: the only way Avrohom could avoid a prison sentence was to inform on anyone else he knew that may have been involved.

There are now approximately 8,000 Jacks and Avrohoms incarcerated in federal and state prisons across the United States. They come from all walks of life. While most are from non-observant backgrounds, the number of more-observant Jews facing prison is growing at a rapid pace.

Many cases involve more aggressive crimes, i.e., drugs – and the lure of easy profits associated with them. Greed, pure and simple, has motivated many to resort to theft, sometimes even through violence.

Yet, whether or not you sympathize with them, they leave more than 24,000 wives, children and parents sitting on the debris of a broken world. They don’t evoke sympathy and caring; they are subjected to brutalizing judgment and negative attention while trying to pick up the pieces.

* * *

One of the most overlooked and misunderstood mitzvohs today is "pidyon shevuyim" -- "redeeming the captives." No less a giant than Maimonides has ruled that assisting the imprisoned is the "highest form of charity, superseding all others." He wrote that charitable funds must actually be diverted from Hebrew schools, synagogues, and other community needs to physically and spiritually provide this urgent assistance.

Some seem to think that this requirement only applied in the "old country" -- when Jews were subject to the whims of rulers who would imprison individuals for anti-Semitic reasons, or to extract a ransom from the Jewish community. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of our contemporary giants of Torah, has ruled that this mitzva of "pidyon shevuyim" applies to those who are justly incarcerated in our country, too.

A look at the Jewish approach to "prison" illustrates why.

Our Torah is very specific when it comes to meting out punishments for a variety of crimes. While sentencing options as diverse as financial penalties, atonement offerings, corporeal punishment, and capital punishment are listed, the punishment of "incarceration" as we know it is nowhere to be found in traditional Torah-based Jewish law.

Where the Torah refers to prisons, they are not sanctioned modes of punitive incarceration. There are prisons established by non-Jewish societies, e.g., Joseph's imprisonment in the jails of Pharaoh’s Egypt; prisons created in contravention to Jewish Law, e.g., the jailing of the prophet Jeremiah; or prisons utilized as temporary holding cells until trial and sentencing.

That is not to say that Jewish law did not condone restrictions on liberty. According to Torah law, when a Jew steals and cannot make restitution, the court may subject him to involuntary servitude to raise the money to repay his victims.

But our Torah also teaches that a Jew is not permitted to make that slave do menial or backbreaking work. If the owner drinks fine wine and food, he is obligated to feed his slave accordingly. He is obligated to support the slave’s wife and family, notwithstanding that they are not his slaves. Indeed, commentators to the Talmud note that, if the Jewish owner has only one pillow, he is obligated to give it to his Jewish slave. The servitude of an "Eved Ivri" is a reparative form of incarceration. Restitution, not punishment, is the goal.

Another form of restrictive liberty -- often misunderstood as "prison" -- were the "Cities of Refuge," three of which were established by Moses just prior to the Jews’ entry into the Holy Land and three others established by Joshua after the Jews settled in the Land of Israel. Actually, those cities were the earliest known form of "protective custody." Persons found guilty of unpremeditated murder were given the option of moving into one of those six cities, thereby escaping the lawful and unpunishable revenge by the victim’s surviving relatives.

But the Cities of Refuge did not function in any way similar to today’s prisons. For one thing, the offender’s family was brought to live with him, so he was not isolated from contact with his loved ones. These penal colonies had all functions of a community, including productive work. The underlying purpose of the Cities of Refuge was atonement -- in a restrictive environment -- that did not deprive the person from necessary natural life needs.

* * *

The Jewish tradition teaches that everything in this universe was created by G-d with a positive purpose -- to be completely utilized and not wasted. Accordingly, punishment in the criminal justice system should effect direct benefits for all parties involved: the perpetrator, victim and society in general.

For the criminal, the consequential punishment for crime should bring penance, atonement, rehabilitation and ultimate purging. After being punished, one starts with a fresh slate; Jewish law dictates that the community must accept the former wrongdoer as a brother, and never remind him of his painful, stained past. Spiritually, the offender regains a proper place in the World to Come. (This attitude is in extreme counter-distinction to present-day norms, where a person’s felon/criminal status follows him through life despite his having paid the consequences of his transgression.) For the victim and society, the goals of punishment must achieve restitution, deterrence, retribution and protection.

Modern imprisonment does not achieve these results. It brings no benefit (short or long term) to the victim, except possibly the satisfaction of revenge. It offers very temporary relief to society (indicated by the high rate of recidivism and the explosion of criminal activity and prison populations). It obviously does no good for the inmate. On the contrary, prison inhibits man’s potential, destroys families and breeds bitterness, anger, insensitivity and eventual recidivism.

Indeed, it appears that, from a Torah perspective, prisons are, in all but the most extreme examples (such as to protect society from the violent among us), wholly contrary to creation’s purpose.

* * *

Although the Torah does not endorse the use of prisons as a modality for punishment, Torah law obligates Jews to obey the law of the land in which they reside, particularly when the government of that land respects human rights and believes in the betterment, freedom and growth of its inhabitants. Accordingly, following the axiom that everything is created for a purpose, we must bring meaning and purpose even to prisons to the extent possible.

* * *

The one form of imprisonment in the Torah that can somewhat parallel modern incarceration is the Cities of Refuge penal colonies. Accordingly, we may examine the Torah’s rules and regulations for this environment to develop comparative humane and beneficial aspects for imprisonment.

In his compendium of the Laws of Rotze’ach (Homicide), Maimonides expounds on the Biblical verse: "and he should run to one of these cities (of refuge) and live," by noting that "a student who is exiled to a penal colony has his teacher exiled together with him so that he should live." One’s teacher gives the inmate an opportunity for life, for those who seek true wisdom feel dead without the study of Torah. Limiting the teacher’s freedom by sending him to accompany his exiled student is balanced against the benefit of giving the incarcerated an opportunity for true life. A Torah-true life -- introduced and administered by a competent teacher/Rabbi -- can be the foremost mechanism in one’s rehabilitative process.

On the most basic level, Mitzvohs serve to modify a person’s behavior and character. The Midrash states that each mitzva addresses a specific aspect of a person, refining and sanctifying each component. Man is basically a behavorial creature, strapped by habits, addictions and regulations. To counteract years of imbalanced or wrong behavior, one must introduce very powerful forces to realign the behavior -- high-level, intense behavorial modification.

When imprisonment affords the opportunity for rehabilitation and the restructuring of the offender’s values, priorities and lifestyle, then it may fulfill a valid purpose.

Indeed, as the Torah teaches, from the darkest moments and deepest loss can come the greatest light and ultimate gain. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to make it possible for inmates in these physical confinements to transform a period of suspended death to vibrant life -- for them and for their affected families.

Unfortunately, America’s prison system is not user friendly to the observance of mitzvohs.

Because Jews are such a minority in our criminal justice system (an estimated 8,000 in a total prison population of over 1.6 million!), they have often been routinely denied the right to practice their religion. At best, opening the prison chapel to accommodate only a handful of inmates is often perceived as a "headache" by prison officials. Providing a diet that meets an observant Jew’s needs is considered an unnecessary bother and expense. In worst case situations, Jewish inmates are met with outright hostility by staff and Christian chaplains who believe that salvation can only come through their own beliefs.

To address these problems -- and the problems of families torn asunder by the incarceration of a loved one -- the Aleph Institute was founded sixteen years ago at the direction of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us.

Why the name "Aleph"? Because the Rebbe noted that only one letter -- the letter Aleph -- distinguished the Hebrew word for "exile" ("golah") from the word for "redemption" ("geulah").

Today, Aleph stands as a formidable advocate for religious/spiritual programming in prison -- creating alternative punishment modalities that address the need for punishment without destroying human beings -- and helping Jewish prisoners receive spiritual guidance while providing humanitarian assistance to their families left behind.

From second-floor offices in the Shul of Bal Harbour in Florida, a slim staff of fewer than 10 overworked, underpaid, near-volunteers respond to an estimated 200 letters and 100 collect calls per week from inmates and their families.

Aleph educates the prison system as to the needs of Jewish inmates. A nationwide network of Rabbis and lawyers teaches prison officials and chaplains about Jewish traditions and, where necessary, initiates litigation to insure that Jewish inmates are not denied their constitutional right to practice their religion.

This year alone, Aleph distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets on Jewish law, prayer books, Torah volumes, Megillot and inspirational texts, Holiday Guides, Jewish calendars, Holiday-related items (such as menorahs, shofars, and lulavim), pairs of Tefillin and over 20,000 pounds of Passover foods.

And that’s just the beginning. When a Jewish parent goes to prison, an innocent spouse and children serve a sentence, too. Hearts stop. Relationships change. Dreams begin to die. And the psychological effects alone cause severe damage.

It is a horrible fact that children of a parent who goes to prison are statistically more likely to end up imprisoned themselves. Such children, despite their own innocence, are alienated, looked down upon and shamed in their own community. Their natural inclination is to consort with others who suffer the same fate and follow their path.

Aleph helps break this painful and destructive cycle. Aleph deals with the problems faced by the innocent families of incarcerated Jews. Issues such as psychological trauma to young children, uncertainties faced by a spouse left alone at home and, all too often, financial stress faced by the family left behind.

Support group meetings are held at which speakers from different backgrounds provide information on many subjects: psychological issues, prison release guidelines, parole, bankruptcy, reentering a normal lifestyle and more. Families of inmates get a chance to talk with each other -- to compare notes, exchange ideas, and recognize that they are not alone.

Aleph helps families at every Jewish holiday. For example: Before Chanukah, toys and Chanukah "gelt" are sent to hundreds of children. Before Passover, tens of thousands of pounds of matzo and thousands of dollars are distributed to families who otherwise would not be able to celebrate the holiday. On Shavuot, hundreds of books are distributed to children of inmates.

Aleph also provides emergency financial assistance to families around the country who demonstrate need. Aleph has helped with funds to prevent eviction, restore heat and electricity, feed children and provide emergency medical care. Support has ranged from organizing a bar-mitzva for an otherwise-"orphaned" teenager to paying for and conducting a funeral for a deceased family member.

In partnership with other Jewish organizations, Aleph co-sponsors Marriage Enrichment Seminars, at which professional teams of psychologists -- specializing in maintaining meanigful relationships under traumatic conditions -- work with dozens of couples who visit in prisons to keep their marriages intact. In a world in which 85% of marriages fail when a spouse is imprisoned for one year or more, they have been extremely successful.

Aleph’s efforts result in thousands of letters of gratitude:

"I am writing in order to thank you for the bar mitzvah tallit and Rosh Hashanah services. Words alone could never express how much this meant to me, or the joy it brought to my mother when she found out I had been bar mitzvahed."

"Rabbi, I don't claim to understand why G-d allows the things He does in our lives, but I can't deny that it took this prison sentence to get my attention. In fact, had I not been arrested, I would have killed myself with drugs, or forced someone else to do it for me. Needless to say, my faith had been abandoned and I was adrift . . . I thank you and Aleph for reaching out to us when no one else would. For this I will be forever grateful."

"Surrendering one’s husband to a prison doesn’t end the issues. Aleph makes me able to face the day; therefore, I am able to face the everyday things that go on at home."

"Your organization has been a source of inspiration and support since my husband’s incarceration."

* * *

There is much you can do to satisfy this often-neglected mitzva. Speak to your local rabbi and ask if you can accompany them on prison visitations. Make a substantial contribution to support legal advocacy for religious freedom -- and to provide the assistance that the spouses and children left behind so desperately need.

We are taught that the days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur are days of Divine favor. Even though Almighty G-d accepts our teshuva (repentance) all year round, during Elul "the King is in the field" and "He receives all with a pleasant countenance and shows a smiling countenance to all."

We are also taught that G-d bestows judgment and goodness according to the principle of "midah k’neged midah," measure for measure. Our service of Torah and mitzvohs draws down and reveals G-dliness in this world.

Do we truly deserve forgiveness this year? How do we treat those who, in our own opinion, may not deserve forgiveness?

We are all brothers and sisters, regardless of what we do. Even Jews who sin remain Jews -- and we are all obligated to love and help them. Hate the sins, not the sinners.

On the occasion of a personal meeting, a great disciple of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Chabad/Lubavitch) responded to the Alter Rebbe’s question, "How are you?," with a complaint that he was having financial difficulty.

The Alter Rebbe said, "Why are you needed on this earth? To illuminate the world and make it a better, holier place through study and prayer. What does Almighty G-d need to do? To supply all your needs generously."

As the disciple listened, the Alter Rebbe concluded: "Do what you are needed for and G-d will do what He needs to do."

In the merit of this Mitzva, may we receive the best that life has to offer for ourselves and our loved ones. As G-d takes us from our own prisons and limitations and we merit complete freedom: internally and externally, physically and spiritually.

Related Articles

A Torah Perspective On Incarceration As a Modality of Punishment and Rehabilitation
Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar
Aleph Institute's Center for Halacha and American Law: - Questions And Answers Series
Isaac M. Jaroslawicz, Esq
Jewish Law Home Page

Copyright 1997-2008 by Ira Kasdan.
All rights reserved.