Jewish prisoners look to local rabbi as ‘next of kin’
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A voluntary next of kinPgh rabbi serves as 'next of kin' for some Jewish prisoners

Jewish prisoners look to local rabbi as ‘next of kin’

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel offers peace of mind to Jewish prisoners, ensuring they will have a proper burial according to Jewish ritual and "return to the Jewish community."

One problem for some Jewish prisoners is the probability of being cremated by the state, the cost of which is considerably less than burial. (Photo from public domain)
One problem for some Jewish prisoners is the probability of being cremated by the state, the cost of which is considerably less than burial. (Photo from public domain)

They are not blood relatives, but Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel nonetheless is “next of kin” to many of his Jewish brothers and sisters who are concerned with what could happen to their remains if they die while incarcerated.

Vogel is executive director of the Aleph Institute’s North East Region, which provides support and advocacy for thousands of Jewish prisoners throughout 28 state prisons, 20 federal prisons and 60 county jails in Pennsylvania. It serves many additional facilities in Ohio and West Virginia.

For those inmates with no family relationships, passing away while in prison is “one of their biggest fears,” Vogel said.

One problem for Jewish prisoners is the probability of being cremated by the state, the cost of which is considerably less than burial. Cremation is prohibited by Jewish law.

A scene from the West Virginia State Penitentiary, which operated from 1866 to 1995. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Since Vogel opened the Aleph Institute in Pittsburgh in 1991, “unfortunately, there have been quite a few” Jews who died in prison, he said. Some were serving life sentences, others were of an advanced age when incarcerated, and others were the victims of violence.

“There are many Jews serving life sentences, and many older Jews,” Vogel explained. “So, many inmates have designated Aleph or myself as next of kin.”

That designation hands to Vogel the responsibility of ensuring these Jews have a proper burial according to Jewish law and ritual.

Several players in the Pittsburgh funeral community offer their services to these Jewish prisoners free of charge.

“Our policy is and has always been to help anyone who comes our way, regardless of their ability to pay for a funeral,” said Sharon Ryave Brody, owner and president of Ralph Schugar Chapel, Inc.

Schugar works in conjunction with the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, which provides a free grave to those prisoners who die indigent and without family. Other plots have been donated by former area residents who have moved to other locations and have changed their own burial plans.

Gesher Hachaim Jewish Burial Society, under the direction of Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, also will provide funeral arrangements, free of charge, to indigent Jewish prisoners.

A cell block at the retired West Virginia State Penitentiary. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
While most inmates do make it out of prison alive, even those who are young and healthy are at risk of dying while behind bars.

“There is so much violence in prison,” Vogel explained. “Just after I moved to Pittsburgh, unfortunately there was the death of a young man in prison, and I officiated at his funeral. Prison is a violent place. I’ve seen horrible things happen.”

While a “big percentage of families” make arrangements for their incarcerated relatives, Vogel is there for those times when it is not possible.

When those prisoners pass away, “the authorities call me, and we get there as soon as we can to get the remains,” he said. “If [the cause of death] was violent, the coroner is involved. If it’s old age, we just make arrangements to pick up the remains.”

Vogel presides over the burial. He tries to assemble a minyan, but depending on the town, sometimes he is the only person there.

Although most inmates are not serving life sentences, Vogel said it is comforting to them to have designated a Jewish next of kin in the event they do not survive their sentence.

“It does ease their mind to know that if something, God forbid, happens to them,” he said, “they will return to the Jewish community.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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