Each week, for the last 15 years, Fred Landay has donned his kippa, run off copies of the current parsha (Torah portion) and trekked over to the Allegheny County Jail.
Reading the parsha and talking about religion, Landay spends 45 minutes, one-on-one, with each Jewish person confined there.
“But what I really do,” said Landay, “is take them out of prison for 45 minutes.”
While those whom Landay visits do not literally leave the grounds of the jail, he does allow their minds and spirits to escape, if only for a while.
Landay was recognized earlier this month for his dedication as a volunteer of the Aleph Institute. He was one of 50 winners of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, a program administered locally by the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
The Aleph Institute is a not-for profit organization offering a range of services to confined Jewish men and women and their families, who might otherwise be overlooked by traditional Jewish organizations. Run by Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, the Aleph Institute reaches out to Jewish inmates who are scattered throughout the prison system, state hospitals and group homes.
Landay began his work for the Aleph Institute 15 years ago, after meeting up with a Christian chaplain at the jail while Landay was posting bail for one of his employees who got arrested for nonpayment of child support. When the chaplain told Landay about his own weekly visits to the jail to counsel those of his faith, Landay was inspired to help those Jews who were incarcerated as well.
After learning about the Aleph Institute, Landay got in touch with Vogel, and told him he wanted to help.
“These people are hopeless,” he said of the Jews confined to the jail. “They have no one to call. They don’t know what to do.”
Each week, Landay gets a list of about seven inmates claiming to be Jewish from the Aleph Institute. Of those, a few make the claim in an attempt to qualify for kosher meals, he said. Typically, about three to five on the list have a Jewish background, or are sincerely embracing Judaism.
“A lot of times, people find religion in jail,” Landay said. “They know they messed up. It’s a frightening experience to be locked up. These people are scared. A lot of times, they’re crying.”
“We talk about their lives, what they would do differently,” he continued. “We talk about their hopes for the future. It makes them stop and think that what they were doing before, wasn’t really working.”
Landay believes his drive to help those at the jail stems from his own Jewish upbringing.
“Everybody has to give back in the Jewish religion,” he said. “If I would ever get incarcerated, I would want someone of my faith to visit me. It’s a Jew helping another Jew. God just pointed me in that direction.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)