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Rabbi Yisroel Baumgarten (left), a volunteer for the Aleph Institute who visits prisons ahead of the the High Holidays, with other volunteers gathered for a training course at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Yisroel Baumgarten.
Rabbi Yisroel Baumgarten (left), a volunteer for the Aleph Institute who visits prisons ahead of the the High Holidays, with other volunteers gathered for a training course at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. Credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Yisroel Baumgarten.
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HIGH HOLIDAYS 2023

‘Pretty easy’ to talk Yom Kippur themes with incarcerated Jews, Chabad rabbis say

Ahead of the High Holidays, Aleph Institute rabbis visit those who are in jail for high crimes and misdemeanors.

“The One who answered Joseph in jail, He will answer us.” So reads one of several imprisonment references in Yom Kippur prayers, in line with the themes of judgment and atonement of the High Holiday.

Spending hours in synagogue on Yom Kippur—the 25-hour-fast that this year begins on the evening of Sept. 24—can feel like involuntary confinement. But many Jews know literally what it is like to spend the High Holidays in prison.

The rabbis associated with the more than 40-year-old Aleph Institute, a nonprofit headquartered in Surfside, Fla., and with offices in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, N.Y., will visit Jewish inmates ahead of this Yom Kippur, as some have done for many years.

In addition to serving Jewish inmates and their families, the institute assists U.S. military personnel and those who are institutionalized or at risk for incarceration due to mental illness or addiction, as well as their family members.

Mendy Katz, a Chabad rabbi and the institute’s Miami-based director of outreach programs, told JNS that he has visited prisoners around Yom Kippur time for nearly three decades. He plans to do so this year as well. 

“Everyone in prison feels the heavy load of justice and understands what it means to be judged and to be sentenced,” Katz said. “They also understand the concepts of compassion, repentance and forgiveness.”

High Holiday central themes are “very consistent with what incarcerated individuals go through on a daily basis,” he added. “It’s pretty easy to talk about the themes of Yom Kippur with them.”

Rabbi inmate
Rabbi Mendy Katz helping an inmate wrap tefillin. Credit: The Aleph Institute/Rabbi Mendy Katz.

‘Only visitors he’s had in years’

Some prisoners are very remorseful, while others are less so, in Katz’s experience. “Everyone is different,” he said. “But there are those who are mature enough and responsible enough to be remorseful.”

Yisroel Baumgarten, a rabbi who works at the Chabad Young Professionals office in Brooklyn, began visiting prisons as an Aleph Institute volunteer before Yom Kippur two years ago. He has done so since ahead of High Holidays—as he plans to do this year before both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and over Chanukah and summers.

“What makes me go back is seeing the appreciation that the prisoners have for the visits and how much it means for them,” he told JNS. “There was a fellow we visited this summer who said we were the only visitors he’s had in years.”

“It’s just raw emotions when you’re there,” Baumgarten added. “You really see the appreciation.”

Shul of Bal Harbour
A 360-degree panoramic photo of The Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, Fla. Credit: Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock.

‘Serves those of all backgrounds and faiths’

Sholom Lipskar, a Chabad rabbi and founder of the Shul of Bal Harbour in Surfside, told JNS that he created the Aleph Institute in 1981 under the direction of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, no one was addressing the needs of those in a limited environment, Lipskar said.

“They didn’t have access to all the spiritual needs that are critical for their lives and in particular their families, so we successfully filled that void,” Lipskar said.

The institute serves those of all backgrounds and faiths, who need not be Jewish. “It’s a Jewish-run program that addresses all needs for Jewish people,” Lipskar said. “We also address the needs for the general community that are deemed necessary.”

Lipskar, whom the Rebbe sent as an emissary with his wife, Chana, to South Florida in the late 1960s, also founded the Chabad synagogue in Surfside in 1981. The shul’s current building, which recently underwent a $20 million renovation, turns 30 next year.

In 2009, Newsweek named the shul one of the 25 most vibrant U.S. congregations, recording that it is “one of the country’s most unorthodox Orthodox synagogues,” which reaches out “to Miami’s diverse Jewish population, including Sephardic Jews.”

The synagogue serves the communities of Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Indian Creek Village and Surfside—all located near Miami Beach—according to its website, and “is the center for Jewish activities for these four communities and thousands of international tourists that visit or make South Florida their second home.”

What started with a handful of congregants and one weekly class is now a community of more than 3,000 people, including 800 families, and 50 classes are offered weekly, according to Lipskar.

In June 2021, hundreds of volunteers prepared supplies at the shul following the collapse of the nearby Champlain Towers South condominium, where 98 people were killed. The shul served as a command center for weeks, helping to bolster first responders as well.

The community “participated in any way financially to make sure the rescuers had the proper food 24/7 and that everything was done at the highest level,” Lipskar told JNS.

The shul has been so successful, he said, that four smaller synagogues have grown out of it. (His nephew, Rabbi Chaim Lipskar, runs The Shul of Downtown in the Brickell neighborhood, Miami’s financial district, which draws young professionals as well as Sephardic Jews.)

Looking ahead to the next 30 years, the elder Lipskar anticipates further growth. “The programs become more mature, and we add programs to our existing programs,” he said.

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