Aleph Institute symposium highlights compassion for the incarcerated
EducationReducing recidivism

Aleph Institute symposium highlights compassion for the incarcerated

Program is reminder that people need a ‘Second Chance’

Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel speaks during an Aleph Institute event. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel)
Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel speaks during an Aleph Institute event. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel)

In prison, there are only two days, goes the refrain: the day you go in and the day you go out.

But between those days, an interim exists, and that chapter deserves focus,  explained Rabbi Moshe Mayir Vogel, executive director of Aleph Institute – North East Region.

For 33 years, the Squirrel Hill resident has aided inmates and those released from incarceration. Through spiritual guidance and numerous programs Vogel and Aleph have reduced recidivism.

On Sunday, those efforts will continue as chaplains, volunteers and correctional officers gather at the institute for a “Second Chance” symposium.

Antisemitism in the prisons will be addressed, but the overarching message, Vogel said, is that “human beings deserve a second chance and need to be taken out of their cells for certain moments and heard by another person.”

Chaplaincy is hailed as a counter to criminal relapse.

Nearly two-thirds (64.7%) of individuals were “re-arrested or re-incarcerated within three years of release,” according to a 2022 report from Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.

Nationwide, the rate is significantly higher.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported that 82% of people released from state prisons in 2008 were arrested at least once in the decade following.

Individuals who work with Aleph, or similar institutions, experience far less recidivism.

“Traditionally, we are at 8% for the same time frame,” Vogel said.

Marshall Dayan, a retired federal public defender and the president of Pennsylvanians Against the Death Penalty, praised Aleph’s work.

A recidivism rate of 8% is “remarkable,” he said. “That tells us that no one is irredeemable.”

The Highland Park resident, who collaborates with the Squirrel Hill-based organization, will be the symposium’s keynote speaker.

There’s an emphasis throughout the institute’s work that “we’re all created B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God),” Dayan said. “We are commanded to engage in being partners with Hashem, in creating the kind of universe that we all want to live in.”

Even those who’ve committed heinous acts have “some role to play,” he said. “My tradition taught me that we believe in teshuva (repentance) and everyone has an opportunity to turn from evil and do good.”

Marshall Dayan speaks at an Aleph Institute event. (Photo courtesy of Marshall Dayan)

Dayan was introduced to those concepts almost 45 years ago as a junior at the University of Georgia. At the time, the Peach State had announced it would carry out its first execution in nearly 20 years.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, in a democratic society, if my state is going to be killing somebody, that means that I’m going to be killing somebody because we all are the government,’” he said.

Dayan reflected on capital punishment, jurisprudence and his role as a tax-paying citizen. He committed to attending law school and arrived at Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., intent on following a particular path.

“I focused as much of my legal education as I could on criminal defense and capital defense,” he said.

After graduating, Dayan joined a small D.C. firm and represented Virginia and Florida death row inmates on a pro bono basis. He became a staff attorney for the North Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. After almost a decade with the center and the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender, he entered private practice in Durham, North Carolina.

Dayan focused on capital litigation at all stages from trial through post-conviction. He became a visiting professor of constitutional law at North Carolina Central University School of Law — a Historically Black Colleges and Universities law school — and later served as an assistant professor of law for six years.

In 2006, Dayan joined the national ACLU Capital Punishment Project but only stayed a year.

“It was strictly public education and advocacy, and what I found was that as much as I liked doing that — and I do like doing it, and still do it now as president of Pennsylvanians Against the Death Penalty — I really missed litigating,” he said.

Dayan found an opening at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Pittsburgh in the Capital Habeas unit. A lifelong Steelers fan, Dayan was thrilled to be hired. He and his wife moved to the city in 2007 and “have been here ever since,” he said.

Marshall Dayan, right, greats client Noel Montalvo, who was exonerated 20 years after being sent to death row. (Photo courtesy of Marshall Dayan)

Vogel called Dayan an asset and “an ear” to Aleph and the larger region.

“Marshall has been an advocate for those people on death row for over 40 years,” Vogel said. He recognizes that “individuals who have or may have done terrible wrongs are still human beings and they deserve compassion.”

According to the American Bar Association, as of 2022, 128 people are on death row in Pennsylvania, a small fraction of the commonwealth’s more than 36,000 inmates.

A moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania has been in place since 2015.

Vogel said Aleph serves both Jews and non-Jews; the former, which are spread across state and federal correction centers, total approximately 1,000.

Both Vogel and Dayan refuse to give up on any of the incarcerated or released.

It’s a commitment that was espoused by Vogel’s mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“One of the goals of the prison system is to help Jewish inmates and non-Jewish inmates — who are required to keep the Noahide laws — to raise up their spirits, and to encourage them, providing the sense to the degree possible, they are just as human as those that are free, just as human as the prison guards. In this way they can be empowered to improve,” Schneerson told followers in March 1976.

People are often mistaken about prison life, Dayan said.

“Incarceration is awful. Imagine never getting to decide for oneself what time to get up, what time to turn on the light, what time to turn off the light, what time to eat, what time to go outside, what time to shower, what time to exercise, what time to pray, who you can pray with,” he said. “Every single decision that human beings make on a regular basis is taken out of your hands when you’re incarcerated.”

The reality of prison makes chaplaincy indispensable, Dayan continued.

“These professionals bring a sense of spirituality, inner peace, to people for whom that’s very hard,” he said.

“Because people are so confined, and their lives are so directed, and they have so little freedom, and they have so little contact with the outside world, it really dehumanizes them,” he continued. “I’m not suggesting that, therefore, we should do away with prisons. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying it is a punishment, but no one should be misguided to think that anybody who’s incarcerated has anything great. It’s a miserable, miserable, miserable way to live.”

The symposium, and Aleph’s work, remind chaplains and others that individuals are not only created in the image of God but “most of the people who are incarcerated will become members of society again outside of prison walls,” Dayan said. “Let’s do everything that we can to help get them ready to be back out on the streets in a productive and loving way. We can’t abandon them. We can’t abandon them in terms of training them spiritually, economically, vocationally — all of those things are necessary elements of being productive members of society.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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