Yankel Vogel, 13, may be the youngest person to walk the halls of the Allegheny County Jail — but not because he did anything wrong.
To the contrary, Yankel, who just celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah last summer, obtained security clearance to visit the lockup so he could read the Megillah to the Jewish prisoners there on Purim.
Five men who were registered with the prison as Jewish gathered last Thursday morning to hear Yankel chant the story of Esther, Mordechai, Achashverush and Haman.
Yankel is the son of Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, North East Region. Vogel has sent young men to read the Megillah at the County Jail and other state and federal prisons throughout the region for “many years,” he said.
Following his son’s bar mitzvah, the rabbi asked him if he would learn the Megillah so that he could help those incarcerated fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Book of Esther.
“It’s an important mitzvah, bringing Purim to others,” Vogel said. “The day has to begin with helping others.”
While children are generally not permitted inside the jail, the warden made an exception for Yankel, Vogel said.
“The prison chaplain, [Kimberly Greway], had come to Yankel’s bar mitzvah, and she felt a connection to him,” Vogel said.
It can be particularly meaningful for prisoners to be in the presence of children, he noted. “They were happy and excited that Yankel came. It means a tremendous amount for the inmates to have a younger person come in to read the Megillah.”
Yankel read the Megillah in 32 minutes and “did well,” his father said. The prisoners were quiet and at attention for the duration of the reading, which was followed by hamantaschen and orange juice, along with a blessing for the food.
The Aleph Institute covered 30 prisons in the area during the 24 hours of Purim. Students from New York, as well as volunteers from all over Pennsylvania, brought the Megillah to Jewish prisoners throughout the region.
While Yankel said he was “excited” to read the Megillah at the jail, the experience also was “a little scary.”
But, he added, he was glad he did it.
The determination of the prisoners to celebrate their Jewishness while incarcerated is inspiring, Vogel said. It is a complicated process for them to be allowed to participate. They have to file requests in advance, and then be thoroughly checked when leaving their cell units, and then again when they leave the chapel.
“It’s an ordeal for them,” he said. “But they do what they can. To see the dedication people have … they want to celebrate.”
Vogel said he hoped that Yankel would continue to “have a heart” for this type of mitzvah and feel the Jewish prisoners are “an important part of our community.”
The Aleph Institute continues to have openings for volunteers.
“It’s such a mitzvah,” Vogel said. “These individuals need our help. Having these inmates celebrate the warmth of Judaism, they can use it as an anchor to lead a productive life when they get out.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.