Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

By Dovi Seldowitz

Of the various outreach efforts Chabad is known for, some are regarded for their high public profile (menorah lightings, Passover sedarim, etc.), while others involve less hype (like translating Chasidic texts); some Chabad activities emphasize individual involvement and commitment (such as encouraging adult men to don tefillin), and some seek for entire community participation (holiday services, Torah study classes, etc.). As much as each of these types of activities vary in terms of audience size and publicity, they stand separate from the unique outreach initiatives sponsored by the Chabad movement, including Chabad’s work with prisoners and inmates. Jews, like every other group includes members who have committed crime, been prosecuted and sentenced to years in jail; Chabad is among the few Jewish organizations involved in caring for the needs of Jews in prisons.

Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization based in Miami, Florida, has devoted itself to assisting Jewish prisoners, helping them cope with life in prison as well as reintegration into a life after imprisonment. Few Jewish movements claim a stake on this area of Jewish need. All too often organized Jewish communities are in the position where it is easy to overlook the Jewish incarcerated. In this instance, Chabad has filled a serious void in the care and responsibility the Jewish community has towards imprisoned Jews.

Through Chabad’s Aleph Institute, Jewish prisoners are finding themselves with the critical support they need to keep them from sliding back to crime following their release. Aleph’sinmate rehabilitation program has been recognized as a success story in terms of reducing rates of recidivism – the tendency for former inmates to continue crime even after their time in prison – and providing support to Jewish prisoners long after their release.[1] But in truth, long before Chabad’s formal offender rehabilitation program, individual Chasidim have gone to local prisons to lead High Holiday services, knowing that without their effort (travelling to prisons while their friends and families celebrated at home) these prisoners would not celebrate the Jewish festivals.[2]

Social scientists have long noted that offender treatment programs cannot expect their attendees to stay out of trouble completely. On average, such programs reach a success rate of 50-60%. Originally, when this research was first published, the tendency was to ‘see the glass as half full’, but with time, and continuing research showing no change in success rates, the perspective turned pessimistic, seeing the same glass as ‘half empty’.[3]

For Chabad, however, no good deed is too small and no outreach program is considered a failure for not attracting enough participants. The movement’s attitude towards all forms of Jewish outreach has long been framed as, primarily, a spiritual endeavor. This positive attitude towards the significance of even the most minimal achievements was the result of the emphasis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted that each and every good deed, no matter how seemly small, helped the world become a better place.

Chabad’s offender treatment programming has helped inspired those Jews who are truly in need of support and encouragement. Chabad Chasidim stand out for their dedication to imprisoned Jews, helping them remain attached to the Jewish tradition through incarceration. It is the profound dedication to assisting a fellow Jew, coupled with the forcefully positivistic perspective that each good deed is a world of its own, that leads Chabad to achieve success in rehabilitating former prisoners, allowing these men and women to discover joy in life and happiness in living.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Dovid Zaklikowski, “Aleph Institute Lowers Recidivism Rate, Says Chief Justice,” Lubavitch.com, November 16, 2014.
[2] See for example, Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of The Hasidic Family, Summit Books, New York: 1985, p. 15.
[3] See, James Bonta and D. A. Andrews. “Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation 6 (2007): 1-22.

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