MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In what is believed to be an unprecedented ceremony for the federal prison system, Jewish leaders flocked to this West Virginia city Tuesday for the dedication of a Torah to be used by the detainees.
Twenty-one Jewish inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown looked on as a scribe from New York filled in the final letters of the so-called “No Jew Left Behind Torah.”
The scroll will remain at FCI Morgantown for approximately six months before traveling to prisons around the country where minyans of Jews are detained.
But Aleph Institute, a support group for Jewish inmates, which conceived of the No Jew Left Behind program, chose FCI Morgantown as the site for the dedication — a decision Aleph officials put down to the size of the Jewish population here and the cooperation of prison officials.
“I’m almost certain this is the first time an event like this has taken place in a federal or state prison,” said Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of Aleph.
That distinction was not lost on Federal Bureau of Prisons, whose head chaplain, Joseph Pryor, attended the ceremony.
“The giving of this Torah is life-giving and life-changing,” Pryor said in a speech to the 40 some people on hand.
From Pittsburgh, United Jewish Federation Chair Billy Rudolph and Aleph Northeast Region Director Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel were also there.
Though largely funded by the Schottenstein family of Columbus, Ohio, Jewish inmates around the country were given the chance to donate a letter in the scroll by contributing a dollar. In doing so, they symbolically fulfilled the 613th commandment in the Torah, which is to actually write a Torah scroll in one’s lifetime
“Any amount is enough to purchase a letter,” Pryor said, “but the important thing is to buy this letter to fulfill this unique 613th commandment.”
One by one, honorees and inmates, some of whom who were accompanied by their wives and children, walked to the front of the social hall and sat next to the scribe, Rabbi Moshe Klein, as he filled in one of the remaining letters in the Torah.
An honoree then hoisted the scroll and carried it under the chupah to the back of the social hall where it was housed in a portable ark.
One inmate, who asked not to be named, spoke for his fellow detainees as he thanked Aleph and everyone who contributed to the project.
“In a time of difficulties,” he said, “one can always turn to the Torah for guidance, and the Jewish community for support.”
To which Lipskar added that Aleph’s goal is to not need a Torah at FCI Morgantown, or any prison for that matter.
“God willing, the community here will shrink to a size where it doesn’t need a Torah,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-687.1005.)