My experience in prison

Rabbi Yossi Harlig

Many people are not aware of the plight of the 5,000 Jews that are in prisons all across America. Prison is a dark and lonely place. It alienates these men and women from their families and community. The prison system makes it very difficult to maintain sanity and self-worth, and even more difficult to properly observe religion.

Even in the most accommodating prisons, it is not easy to live as a Jew. Even those with the strongest personalities can lose their identity and ability to cope. Jews in prison need to know that someone cares for them and they are not alone.

Each month for the past 12 years, I have served as a volunteer chaplain visiting the Jewish men and women at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida City. As part of the Spark of Light Program at the Aleph Institute, I strive to uphold the fundamental Torah principle to love every Jew as ourselves. My goal is not to free the inmate from prison physically, but to free him or her spiritually.

The Spark of Light program is the only national program that serves Jewish inmates in the U.S. The program helps ensure that these men and women stay connected to their families, communities and Jewish heritage.

During my monthly visits, I assist the inmates with their daily Jewish practices, which is a great challenge in such an isolated and anti-Semitic environment. Together we join in meaningful prayer and Torah study. The Torah is God’s instruction or teaching to mankind and by studying it; these men and women are discovering the true purpose of life and learning how to lead an ethical and moral life.

Without family and friends, holidays in prison are especially difficult. During the Jewish holidays, I am able to provide spiritual leadership, holiday Torah readings, books, traditional Jewish food and other comforts.

Studies have shown that faith-based programs have a very strong effect on the rehabilitation of those who are incarcerated. The Spark of Light program helps inmates amend their wrongs and seek forgiveness. It gives them the best chance of one day reintegrating into society and becoming productive, law-abiding citizens.

The inmates have told me that my visits are “like a breath of fresh air.” Our time together gives them the emotional strength to get through another month. For many, this is the first time they have delved into their spiritual side and embraced their Jewish traditions. Before, life was full of drugs and despair. Now, they find themselves with time to reflect, become more spiritual and study the Torah.

So, what’s in it for me? The knowledge that I am fulfilling my mission in life by making a difference in someone’s life. You, too, can make a difference. Give of yourself to others. Love your neighbor as yourself.

To learn how you can make a difference, go to <www.chabadofkendall.org>, visit the Lester & Hilda Greenstein Chabad of Kendall/Pinecrest, 8700 SW 112 St., or call 305-234-5654.

For more information about the Spark of Light Program at the Aleph

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