For 33 years, Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel has helped incarcerated Jews keep the faith — and nurture it through Torah study.
This June, though, marked the third anniversary of something unexpected in Vogel’s tenure: teaching in a way to fit the unusual molds of COVID-19.
“In a very dark place, even a small candle throws a lot of light,” Vogel told the Chronicle. “We give (inmates) the strength to live another day.”
“A rabbi goes in and we talk to the inmates — these are sacred moments,” he added. “When COVID came, the prisons were hardest hit. There was no way of getting in.”
So, the Aleph Institute, whose northeast division Vogel runs in Squirrel Hill, adapted.
The nonprofit Jewish organization set up a makeshift studio, and Vogel started videotaping 10- to 15-minute weekly “sermonettes”— short moral lessons combined with Torah study, to be broadcast on prison channels a few hours each week.
Some prisoners viewed the Jewish programming messages in their cells, some — as in those at Allegheny County Jail — in pods.
In short, though, they were a hit.
“(Inmates) haven’t got the challenges of the person on the street — it’s a whole different world,” Vogel said. “The videos are tailored to that community.”
“Wherever we are, we can bring godliness into our life.”
Fred Erick Sims knows Vogel’s messages well.
The Ohio native was serving time in a Pennsylvania prison more than a decade ago for two misdemeanors — receiving stolen property and a DUI — and heard through another inmate about the Aleph Institute.
Sims’ mother was Jewish, but he had not grown up practicing the religion.
Sims learned about Aleph Institute “right about the time that I had actively decided to make teshuva, to go back in and explore my Jewish heritage, specifically in a religious sense,” Sims said.
Sims first moved to Pittsburgh in 2007 but went back to prison briefly on a parole violation. Today, after returning to Allegheny County in 2012, he lives in McKees Rocks and works as a home improvement contractor.
In prison years ago, Sims was paging through some literature and saw Vogel’s name.
“I thought, ‘This must be a guy who’s a tzadik,’” he said. “I wanted to be around someone who was a positive person and could guide me.”
Vogel taught Sims about the Torah, as well as a lot of things he realized he previously knew.
“After learning about Judaism and studying the work of rabbis, I understood my mother was very culturally Jewish and she imparted to me and my siblings a lot of Jewish culture, a lot of Jewish values,” Sims said. “I found Rabbi Vogel to be very understanding — he deals with people who have lost their way (and) he realizes how soul-crushing the penal system is in the United States.”
“It was very important to me, in my development, that an organization like Aleph Institute existed,” he added. “I had some stumbles. But it served as a beacon, a beacon of hope, to live a better life.”
Vogel has talked to people like Sims for more than three decades.
“I hope I know the message they want — or they need,” Vogel said. “The message of the Torah is appropriate wherever we are.”
“It’s painful work — you see a lot of pain and suffering. But it’s very rewarding,” he added. “This is what inmates look forward to the whole week, the whole month: someone to listen to them, someone they can talk to.”
“They’re human beings …. They’ve sinned but they are human beings and they need help. Every human being can bring godliness to the world, even to the darkest places.”
Vogel started to follow the path to prison ministry decades ago.
An 11th-generation Englishman, Vogel traveled as a kid with his father in 1970 from Manchester, England, to Brooklyn, New York, to meet with Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson — the Lubavitcher Rebbe — one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Schneerson quizzed Vogel on the Mishna related to God’s justice system.
In 1991, Vogel, then living near Schneerson in Crown Heights, met with the Rebbe again and presented him with a note bearing a list of places to explore.
Schneerson circled “prison ministry.”
“The Rebbe gave me a blessing that this is what I should spend my life doing,” Vogel said. “It was so interesting that years [after the 1970 visit] this became my work.”
Vogel sees a future in the video messages he provides to prisoners, as well as his visit to prisons in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“This program, even though COVID has sort of officially come to an end, we continue to do it,” he said.
“It’s an incredible tool.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.