Jewish prisoner advocacy relies on interns’ dedication

Jewish prisoner advocacy relies on interns’ dedication

Law student Matt Madruga has two weeks under his belt as an intern at the Aleph Institute.
Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Law student Matt Madruga has two weeks under his belt as an intern at the Aleph Institute. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

When Matt Madruga was growing up Roman Catholic in Southern California, he probably could not have predicted that he would one day be working for a rabbi in Pittsburgh and advocating on behalf of Jewish prisoners.

But now it all makes sense.

Madruga, who just finished his first year at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, has a deep desire to help others, an interest in criminal law and a passion for deep thinking, so his work as summer law intern with Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel at the Aleph Institute N.E. Regional Headquarters is a natural fit.

Madruga majored in philosophy as an undergrad at St. John’s University, has studied different faiths and belief systems, and has read Jewish philosophers, including Moses Maimonides. So when the opportunity arose for him to apply to work at the Aleph Institute, a not-for-profit Jewish educational and humanitarian organization serving imprisoned Jewish men and women and their families, he did not hesitate.

Madruga has been on the job for two weeks so far, and is already appreciating the varied experience he is getting and the satisfaction of helping those incarcerated.

“I wanted to work at a nonprofit,” said the 27-year old Madruga. “And I liked the idea of helping the community.”

So far, Madruga has been tasked with researching how to secure kosher meals for an inmate, and has appeared in court on behalf of another inmate with psychological challenges who was petitioning for placement in a facility with better care.

He is also anticipating helping an inmate set up an estate or trust, he said.

Madruga works 10 to 30 hours a week at the Aleph Institute. The internship is not paid, but even after only two weeks, has proved to be valuable to the budding attorney with long-term academic aspirations.

The Aleph Institute has been utilizing the help of law students “on and off” for the last 10 to 12 years, according to Vogel, the organization’s executive director.

“They are a great resource for us,” Vogel said.

The Aleph Institute serves thousands of Jewish inmates in the region, covering 28 state prisons, 20 federal prisons, and 60 county jails. It serves many additional facilities in Ohio and West Virginia.

The student interns come primarily from Pitt’s law school, although several others have come from Duquesne University School of Law.

Most of the issues that arise in prison for Jewish inmates are resolved by a phone call or a letter to someone in a position of authority, Vogel said. Once the prison administration knows that someone cares and has taken it upon himself to advocate for the prisoner, a positive result is generally achieved.

For example, Vogel said, if a Jewish prisoner wants to observe the Sabbath by not working on Saturday, it generally just takes a call to the institution to make that happen.

“Once we call, they understand that it’s a legal issue and that we’d win if we went to court,” he said.

Other issues that are typically resolved with a phone call include the right to observe Jewish holidays, the use of a yahrtzeit candle or the request to spend time praying in the prison chapel.

“Many issues just have to be ironed out,” Vogel said. “They don’t usually require the ACLU. These are the kinds of jobs that the law students do.”

For those issues that are more difficult, the law student may work with one of three board members of the Aleph Institute who are attorneys: Estelle Comay, Jon Pushinsky and Charles Saul. Often, the Aleph Institute partners with other organizations that fight for prisoners’ rights.

Advocating for kosher food is one challenging aspect of the job, according to Vogel, because such food is about five times more expensive than typical prison fare, and the privilege is sometimes abused by inmates who decide to “sign up to be Jewish and kosher, too.”

Madruga likes the work.

“I like doing this kind of stuff more than working at a law firm at this point,” Madruga said. “Helping out people like this is what it’s all about in my book. I definitely made the right decision about being here.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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