Richard Goldstein believes he’s just the man to recruit Jewish volunteers to go inside state and federal prisons and meet with Jewish inmates.
He believes that because he used to be an inmate himself.
“I’ve been in the belly of the beast,” Goldstein said. “What I’ve noticed already is people are surprised by what I have to say.”
And as the Aleph Institute’s new coordinator in charge of volunteer recruitment, the 71-year-old Scott Township resident promises he will have a lot to say.
Already, Aleph, an advocacy organization for Jewish prison inmates and their families, is planning an open house for Tuesday, Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m. at the Aleph Center on Beacon Street, Squirrel Hill, where Goldstein will meet with prospective volunteers. He also plans to approach congregational rabbis about spreading the word about his project, and he is willing to speak to Jewish groups across the county.
His work, which is supported by a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation, will benefit approximately 2,000 Jews imprisoned in state and federal facilities within a four-hour radius of Pittsburgh.
Currently, the Pittsburgh-based Northeast Region of Aleph has about 50 volunteers who visit Jews in prisons across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Most of them are rabbis, not lay people.
That’s a problem, according to Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Northeast Region.
“It’s time we have lay people who just want to walk in and talk to these individuals,” Vogel said. “Not everyone relates to a rabbi.”
And the current group of volunteers are stretched so thin that many make just one prison visit a month — not enough to serve the needs of Jewish inmates.
He noted the case of one Jewish inmate confined to a prison in the Philadelphia area. No Jewish volunteers had been by to reach out to him, but a Christian chaplain did.
“He went and joined a Christian group because the chaplain was the only one who came out to visit him,” Vogel said. “He’s wearing a Christian cross … He feels deserted by his brethren. We have an obligation to protect our brothers and sisters, even if they fall down.”
A retired pharmacist, Goldstein served about 51 months at the Federal Correction Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., a minimum-security prison, from 1991-95 for dispensing prescriptions without proper authorization. He said that experience sensitized him to the needs of Jewish inmates and the stigma they face once they’re released.
“I hope to humanize this population,” he said, claiming that “Hollywood” has distorted the actual image of many men and women in the corrections system.
“These people are human beings, they’re Jews, and they may have done something wrong, but they’re not what you see on TV. If we humanize these people, and we have an obligation not to forget them, I think we’ll get more volunteers.”
A lot more, he hopes. In fact, Aleph Northeast has set a goal of recruiting 100 new volunteers by this time next year.
Aleph volunteers undergo a one-hour orientation before they begin their visits. If they visit more than four times a year they must undergo security training at the institution.
Goldstein sees the role of a prison volunteer as giving inmates some direction, helping them to identify ways to use their time constructively so that the time serves them well once they get out.
In Goldstein’s case, his time was spent as a teaching assistant for a computer class; he also devoted time to studying Judaica.
But Vogel said the volunteers play a more critical role than that. Frequently, they are the only connection inmates have to their Jewish roots while behind bars.
He recalled a time when, due to burnout, he stopped visiting a federal prison in Loretto for three months. When Vogel resumed his visits there, an inmate he never met before approached him and asked where he had been.
It turned out the inmate, who was Jewish, had not been to any of Vogel’s services because he wasn’t religious, but he watched for the rabbi on the days he was scheduled to visit the facility. He said Vogel’s mere presence was a comfort to him.
“What a lesson that was,” Vogel said. “So the work of the volunteers is phenomenal.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)