by Mussi Sharfstein
Prison inmates are allotted a limited amount of visiting hours from family and friends. But for too many, visitors are rare. For some prisoners, years can pass before they receive a personal visit—whether it’s because they’re too far from family and friends for regular visitation or because their relationships have frayed. Contact with the world beyond the prison bars is often critical in the reintegration of prisoners into society once they’ve been released.
Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of the Aleph Institute, Chabad’s humanitarian organization for prisoners and their families, founded the Aleph Visitation Circle (AVC) to address this concern. Working with and approved by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, AVC gives inmates meaningful opportunities to interact with the outside world. Without using up their precious visiting hours, inmates get thirty minute one-on-one visits with volunteers. Typically, visitors are only approved if they knew the prisoner before his or her incarceration, but AVC’s visiting track secures clearance for visitors who don’t.
Rabbi Yanky Majesky, director of Chabad of Orlando and member of the AVC board, says “These Jewish men and women in prison are looking to connect with someone to receive moral support, encouragement, and spiritual guidance. This is a unique opportunity for community members to volunteer and enhance the lives of those incarcerated.”
The program can be transformative for inmates. “I haven’t had a visit from anyone in over five years,” one federal prisoner wrote to Aleph. “It’s heartwarming to feel considered and valued when everything we know in prison attempts to convince us of the opposite. Your loving kindness shines like the sun in this bleak place.”
Sixty volunteers have joined the program to date. Shimon Lobel, a resident of Israel who commutes almost weekly to New York, dedicates his Sundays to visiting inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York. He deems it the “most fulfilling part of my life, and it’s become somewhat of a calling for me.” He says he goes to lift the spirits of those incarcerated, “but I find that they uplift me significantly.”
Lobel spends around six hours with a inmates. And his list keeps growing as more people request a visit. He meets people who have gone years without a single visitor. “Even if, in your eyes, they may deserve whatever they are going through, you can still bring them joy.” He says he can’t think of any better way to spend his Sundays.
As the program expands, volunteers are needed in every city and state—especially Brooklyn, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. To date, over seventy prisoners have received visitors thanks to the program. The goal, Aleph says, “is to reach every Jewish prisoner and remind them that even in prison they are never alone or forgotten.”