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Visiting Jewish Prisoners in Jail

August 22, 2019 | by Leah Weintraub

We can help to ensure that prisoners have the resources they need to become their best selves in the darkest of places.

Shimon and Mark* bond over coffee at the prison. Under the watchful eyes of the prison guards, it's the only time that Mark can invite an outsider to sit down for a chat, something he looks forward to all week.

Shimon is energized to bring Mark a few moments of normality, exchange some words of Torah, and bring out some meaning in it all. He joined the Aleph Institute's Visiting Circle (AVC) to spend some time with people incarcerated in prison, many of whom rarely if ever receive a visitor - because families generally live far away and the travel costs and overnight accommodations are out of reach; and, families simply break apart - it’s a collateral consequence of being in prison.

After he was asked to visit someone in a Miami prison who only speaks Hebrew, Rabbi Zalman Gansburg, Chabad of Palmetto Bay, signed on to visit people in prison every two weeks. "More than I give, I gain," he says.

In most prisons, when you go through the electronic security check (your phone stays in the car; you're allowed only your driver's license and your car keys, both of which you hand in), you wait in the visitors' room to be buzzed into the prisoners' visitors room. There, while you wait, there's nothing. No ‘reality show’ playing on a wall-screen; no glossy magazines on a coffee table; in fact, no coffee table at all. Chairs set in concrete. Sit and wait. Get in touch. You are about to visit with a prisoner.

The visit packs in a lot of mitzvahs.

"It's safe to say that the majority of people in prison have mental health struggles," Rabbi Gansburg says, "and visiting them involves Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, one of the actions through which the Mishnah states one “eats of its fruits” in this world, and retains the “principle” in the next."

The open love of a fellow Jew as the two men sit across the table from each other is unfettered, unrestricted in an unexpected way, as under lock and key both sides experience the deep truth of unconditional love, all barriers removed.

Visiting a prisoner also alleviates pangs of loneliness, even despair. The life force fueled by our basic need for human and familial connection is switched on, relieved if only for a short time of the emotional ache for some human connection.

Even after the visit, the spiritual solace and warmth continues as a source of inspiration and strength; it could be someone to share growth with, encouragement, and a warm, easy smile, maybe even a shared laugh. Simple. It's calming to the mind; it helps sustain a person's belief in a loving God; it strengthens his faith that he's not alone; it warms his, or her, heart, and in so doing these visits help redeem the spirit. It gives over the possibility to believe in and hope and pray for the world in which he or she, redeemed, can live, and trust in a nation to whom every living person is a diamond.

Rabbi Gansburg says his bi-monthly prison visits have forced him to confront a world that's beyond the scope of everyday experience. When you drive away from the prison and the people in the barred world, freedom, and the freedom to be there for someone else who is captive, becomes acutely enhanced.

Going to visit someone in prison embodies the importance of Jewish teachings in guiding the Aleph Institute's work, which is to ensure that prisoners have the resources they need to become their best selves in the darkest of places, and can become ready to support themselves as well as contribute to society when they get out.

As one volunteer emailed: "I had a very meaningful visit with the two prisoners yesterday. I first met with Mr. G. for about an hour. He was absolutely flabbergasted that I came to visit him, he tells me that he's been incarcerated for six years, and I'm the third social visit he's had in six years. Could you imagine....three visits in six years. He was thrilled I came, and I promised him I will come back and see him."

Aleph is asking for Aleph Visiting Circle volunteers in every city and state—especially Brooklyn, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago, to come forward. The goal “is to reach every Jewish prisoner so they know that even in prison they are never alone or forgotten.”

To volunteer for the Aleph Institute's Visiting Circle, visit or contact Sarah Schmukler at, 310-5982142 ext. 231, and become a meaningful volunteer who brings light and a measure of humanity to someone stuck in places most of us know little about.

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