Yaakov Yehudah Raskin, 20, and Tani Rapoport, 21, had some free time this summer.
They decided to spend it in prison.
The two rabbinical students had a few weeks open before starting their final year of training to become Lubavitch rabbis, but instead of kicking back, they are crisscrossing Pennsylvania, visiting Jews and non-Jews who are incarcerated in 33 federal and state prisons.
“We thought it was a nice way to spend our break,” said Raskin, who along with Rapoport, stopped in Pittsburgh for a few days between prison visits.
The program is organized by the Aleph Institute, a national nonprofit founded in 1981 by Rabbi Sholom D. Lipskar under the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Its purpose is to help families in crisis, addressing the spiritual and humanitarian needs of those in the military and institutional environments.
There are currently 25 pairs of students traversing the country visiting the incarcerated, each pair assigned to a different territory.
Raskin and Rapoport began their Pennsylvania trek on Aug. 5, and have already visited inmates at 24 institutions, including those in Lewisburg, Loretto, Albion, Somerset and Altoona. They were scheduled to wrap up their mission on Aug. 20.
“We sometimes visit three or four facilities a day,” said Raskin, “Shabbos not included, and usually not on Sundays.”
At most stops, a handful of people show up to the optional meeting with the rabbinical students, about half of them Jews. In one facility, no Jews came to meet with them, but one non-Jew did.
“We gave him the same attention as anyone else,” Rapoport said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Their faith in fate keeps them motivated, even on days when they don’t seem to be reaching great numbers of people.
“We had one stop where they were on lockdown, and no one was allowed to leave,” Raskin said. “They didn’t let us know in advance. But there was one man in solitary confinement, and they let us down to see him.”
The man was in solitary because he had been involved in a brawl that another prisoner had started. It was his first time punished in the 10 years he had been at the facility.
“They put him in a metal cage, a holding cell that was about 4 by 6 [feet] to move him so he could meet with us,” Raskin said. “But there was a glass window, so we could talk to him. After we finished, he said, ‘I was wondering why God did this to me. But now I know he did it for a reason.’”
If the man had not been in solitary, he would not have met with Raskin and Rapoport.
“Because he happened to be in that area, he could see us,” Rapoport said. “He inspired us, and hopefully, we inspired him.”
“It really meant something to him,” Raskin added. “It was like a wake-up call.”
Their edict simply is to visit with those who are incarcerated, speak some words of Torah and, maybe most importantly, to listen.
“They are looking for meaning in life,” Rapoport said of many of the prisoners who opt to meet with him and Raskin. “They have lots of time to think, and they are looking to make the best of their situation.”
At each facility, Rapoport and Raskin also meet with the chaplain on duty. Most, said Raskin, are “open-minded.”
“They find it interesting that two rabbinic students are using their summer to visit prisoners when they could be doing something else,” Rapoport said.
“But this is how we were brought up,” Raskin added. “Every Friday [while studying in Yeshiva], we were given time to do outreach. It’s ingrained in us. It’s in our make-up.”
At a facility in Loretto, the pair met with an elderly gentleman who had just been re-assigned to the camp facility affiliated with the institution. He was the only Jew in the camp.
“He said he felt very alone and that he was depressed,” Rapoport said. “He said he tries to serve God as best he can. So we spoke to him, and then we sang and danced with him. We just tried to give him some love and to raise his spirits.”
“You could see on his face that he was better afterwards,” Raskin said.
Serving the prison population is a particularly rewarding form of outreach, according to Raskin.
“You can see the fruits of your labor right away,” he said.
Case in point: At a facility in Lewisburg, after speaking about the Rebbe’s love for all Jews, regardless of their circumstances, some of the men began to weep.
“More than one person broke down and cried,” Rapoport said. “There are no words to describe the feeling of a 20-year-old speaking to another man who is 50 years old and him covering his face and breaking down to cry. It’s something you don’t see every day.”
Rapoport admitted that it is “kind of a scary thing” for a 20-year-old to walk into a prison.
“But we try to go in with an open heart and an open mind,” he said. “Because it’s not about who they are or what they did. We just see each one as a Jew in an unfamiliar circumstance.”
The visits can help the prisoners in their ultimate transition back into society, according to Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, North East Region, which is located in Squirrel Hill.
“Being in prison isolated from family and friends is grinding,” Vogel said. “With over 90 percent of the Jewish men and women scheduled for release, it is imperative we provide them with the hope and, of course, the tools that they can make it and become productive members of the community.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.