It was 1977, and Moishe Mayir Vogel had just come home to Manchester, England from his yeshiva in Israel. Late at night, the phone rang. On the other line was someone he knew who had just been arraigned by police. The next morning, the man’s face was plastered all over the media, and he was later convicted of his crime.
Vogel, a teenager at the time, went back to his yeshiva and forgot about it, but when he came home a year later, his father said he was going to visit the man in prison.
“I said, ‘Daddy, oy vey!’” Vogel recalled. “‘He did such a terrible thing. He brought such embarrassment to the Jewish community. Why are you going to visit him?’”
His father explained that since that man in Manchester had plenty of time to repent, it was incumbent on others to assume that he did so.
Ten years later, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe assigned Vogel to work with the Aleph Institute in Pittsburgh for his own “life sentence,” Vogel brought his father’s message with him.
In Pittsburgh, Vogel met Shlomo, an inmate at a medium security federal prison who he says is hardworking and outgoing. Vogel knows that Shlomo is serving time for murder but doesn’t see him for his past alone.
As the executive director of the Aleph Institute, Northeast Regional Headquarters, Vogel helps Jewish inmates like Shlomo become productive members of society. The organization supports those with alcoholism and families undergoing trauma, too, but Vogel’s primary work is with inmates.
Yom Kippur only comes once a year, but forgiveness runs through Vogel’s work year-round. Forgiveness can be elusive for the Jewish inmates — Shlomo can’t undo murder — but Vogel argues there’s no excuse for complacency.
“They’ve still got to serve God wherever they are,” he said. “To go around saying ‘I’m a loser, I went and did X, I can never continue being a productive member of society’ is also inappropriate. The same evil inclination which drove him to do the ill in the first place is driving him to do the ill now, too.”
Teshuva, commonly interpreted as repentance, literally means “return” — and that’s the meaning Vogel imparts to inmates. “Every human being, every Jew is a part and parcel of God,” Vogel said. “And he really wants to do good; he is by essence good. And when he does something which is negative, that’s not him. That’s, as the rabbis explain, a wind of folly. For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what God is saying is ‘Come back, and be the person who you know you should be.’”
Vogel believes that anyone can do teshuva. So he views “cancel culture” — the belief that you shouldn’t support someone who is perceived to have done wrong, manifesting often in mass shaming on social media — as misguided.
“We’re fallible, we make mistakes,” he said. “No one is canceled. No human being is a product of a disposable society.
“Don’t say, ‘There, that’s it, you’ve got an addiction, you’re over with.’ No! Take care of it. Whichever way possible,” Vogel continued. “A person who has cancer, we don’t say, ‘Boy, you’re canceled, it’s over with.’ No! We go into a cancer hospital and try and take care of it, and God gives the blessings.”
Rabbis have a three-part job at the prisons: Discuss Jewish topics like the holidays; talk about prison-related logistics, like order forms for Passover meals; and meet one-on-one with inmates for counseling and prayer.
“The COVID experience has brought drastic change to the prison system,” said Vogel. Inmates are mainly isolated in their housing units to prevent the coronavirus from spreading across the compound. Rabbis currently can visit only one prison. And the inmates will spend Yom Kippur in their individual units instead of congregating in the chapel.
But the Aleph Institute has found new ways to meet inmates’ needs. It sent shofars to every prison in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and one inmate at each location will serve as the designated ba’al tekiah. The inmates also will be given bagged lunches to save for the Yom Kippur break fast.
And in place of discussing Jewish topics in person, the Aleph Institute produced educational videos that are played each week on a designated religious TV in every unit.
“I’ve become all of a sudden proficient in Adobe Premiere,” said Vogel.
Meanwhile, Shlomo is a “role model” inmate, he said. He makes sure new Jewish inmates have what they need and are able to make phone calls. He prays. Jews and non-Jews alike look up to Shlomo, and prison authorities tell Vogel that Shlomo is a stabilizing force.
“Should society let him out?” Vogel wonders. “I don’t know… We can never justify taking a life. Here’s an individual who is at a great place spiritually. Physically, he’s got his challenges — he’s got to bring Godliness into a very dark place.”
Taking things day by day is key, he said.
“We wash our hands in the morning at the place we are,” said Vogel. “Not where we would like to be. Not where we were yesterday. And by the end of the day, we’ll take an accounting to see was it a good day, did we do right, and if not, where did we fail. And where can we improve? And only we know at the end of the day.” PJC
Kayla Steinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.