My father and I went to prison in the spring of 1976.
My father was going to visit a man notorious in our community for the criminal and immoral act that had landed him in prison, and my father asked me to join him. That day changed my life.
Today, I have the privilege of directing Aleph Institute Northeast, and I am proud to say we are leading the way in providing relief and support for incarcerated men and women and their families. That day in 1976 my father and I visited one man; but with the inspiration that day generated, Aleph Institute and its volunteers have impacted thousands of lives.
Our experience at Aleph has given us unique insight into the minds and hearts of convicted men and women as well as a unique perspective on their challenges. And for me, the insight all began in the car as my father drove me to prison for the first time on that fateful day so many years ago.
“Father,” I asked, “why visit someone who has done such a horrible crime, someone who had brought such shame on his own Jewish community, someone who just yesterday was a leader in the community and made some extremely bad choices?”
My father responded, “There is a Jewish law that states there is only one sin whose violation causes the perpetrator to be buried in isolation in a Jewish cemetery: suicide.
“However, if one commits suicide by jumping, say, from the fourth floor of a building, that individual is buried with everyone and is not excluded. For on the way falling down from that building the individual had the opportunity to regret his choice and repent, and because there is that remote possibility, we must presume that he did so.”
My father concluded, “Who, other than G-d, is there to judge an individual who has not only had ample time to repent, but has even openly declared in court that he regrets and apologizes for his crimes?”
Those words have guided our work at Aleph. The individuals we see daily at Aleph Institute are our brothers and sisters. They sinned and transgressed and did bad things; some did very bad things. They committed a wide variety of crimes, and they ruined lives (in addition to their own, which is also a form of suicide). However, once they pay the price established by our own justice system, we must give these individuals another chance. We must give them the tools to succeed and become contributing members of society.
By doing that we build lives and we build families. We remove the economic and emotional burden that these issues have on society. And we give these men and women the only real chance for atonement: to transform themselves from burdens on society to contributors to society.
This is why Aleph Institute invests endless efforts in effective and constructive re-entry strategies and why we firmly believe in “ban the box,” an international campaign by civil rights groups and advocates for ex-offenders aimed at persuading employers to remove from their hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record.
For how can we demand that these people atone for their crimes if we then do everything we can to ensure that they’ll never get a chance to do it?
With more than 3 million people in prison, on probation and on parole in the United States today, most of whom are going to be released to the community sooner or later, the attitude has to be one of forgiveness and one of offering a second chance. This would be the greatest favor for them and their families, and for us and our families.
By Divine Providence, in the Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Pittsburgh Jewish community and community at large is currently embroiled in the Michael Vick saga. Should the backup Steelers quarterback be given a second chance? Should he be welcomed back to the community? And should we allow him to be a productive member of the community?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of atonement. Let us learn a lesson from G-d Himself and His expectations for forgiveness. We are absolutely expected to fully and unreservedly regret the pain and damage caused by our sins. We are absolutely expected to fully and unreservedly commit to taking a brand new path in the future. And we are fully expected to be sincere and speak from the heart.
Mike Vick, who served jail time for his involvement in an interstate dog-fighting ring, has publicly repented and stated his deep regret for his actions and their results. He has amended his ways and committed himself to exerting every effort to reversing the damage his terrible and criminal behavior wrought. And he should be given every opportunity to be a productive member of society, by doing what he knows best, playing the game of football.
We owe it to ourselves and our society to give sincere hearts a second chance to give and not take.
And I owe it to my late, dear father to do everything I can to make sure that happens.
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of the Aleph Institute Northeast, headquartered in Squirrel Hill.