What do Robert, age 47, Rebecca, 32, from California, and Henry, 66, from Chicago all have in common? They are all Jewish and in prison. And all are eager for contact from the “outside” Jewish world.
Jewish Pen Pals, a service that’s run by the Aleph Institute, is based in Miami, Florida. The Aleph Institute is a 30-year-old charity that is dedicated to providing many services to “our forgotten people,” especially Jews in prisons. Among the services offered are prison visitations, free Judaica and a Pen Pal program for these forgotten brethren.
There are currently over 3,000 verified Jewish prisoners in facilities all over the U.S. For many of these people, who are serving long or life sentences, families and friends have abandoned them, thus isolating them from their Jewish roots. They might have been active in their communities, but due to their crimes, their friends are embarrassed and will not contact them. And so, many of them live in their hostile and antisemitic environments anxiously awaiting contact from the outside world, thirsty for knowledge about Jewish life.
Elisheva Tucker, the current coordinator of the Pen Pal program, is very passionate about The Aleph Institute and the Pen Pal program. From personal experience, she understands the importance of communal support, as well as contact from the people of the real world. “I feel it’s a mitzvah to contact these forgotten Jews and make them realize that in the Jewish tradition you can always do tshuvah (repentance) no matter what you have done.” She feels a divine hand guiding her in matching up pen pals and inmates.
Pen Pals are matched up according to education, hobbies, family background, religious affiliation and any other information that is offered by inmates. For example, Leah (pen name), a student in a master’s program, was connected with Manny (an alias) because of their common interests of meditation and yoga.
The Aleph Institute prefers to connect men with men and women with women. Thankfully, there are few Jewish female inmates, so women are occasionally connected with men in prison for non-violent crimes, who are approved by The Aleph Institute. The Institute uses its name and PO Box to maintain anonymity for anyone that doesn’t wish to disclose his address or real name. Prison services sees the name “Aleph Institute” on the return address and knows that the letter is genuine.
The letters are not censored, but pen pals need to be careful what they send. Articles and pictures are never a problem, but CD’s, books and other items might be. It’s best to consult with the Aleph Institute as to what can be offered and what can be sent.
Statistics show that prisoners who have pen pals are rehabilitated best and seldom go back to a life of crime. A convicted felon has a hard time getting a job, can’t vote and gets no support from the government during probation. “Goodbye and good luck” seems to be the theme. By connecting with Jewish communities, it helps them feel that someone “out there” cares. Often the pen pal helps the released felon lead a life of traditional Judaism by bringing him into their community.
Only about half of the convicts have been matched up with a pen pal and the Pen Pal program is looking for more volunteers. You just need to be able to write. There is a handicapped writer, Jim, who can’t use a pen, so he types the letter on computer and emails it to The Aleph Institute. Since inmates are not allowed to get email, the Aleph Institute prints and mails the letter. When a reply comes, they scan the letter and email it back to Jim. International pen pals have a similar arrangement, which also allows for privacy.
For more information or to sign up for the Pen Pal program please contact: penpal_aleph-institute.org or check out their web site: http://www.jewishpenpals.org/index.php
By Judy Yazersky