How One Warden Accidentally Turned Aleph into a National Organization Overnight

The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, tells how G-d miraculously turned a day of certain annihilation into a day of celebration. In that spirit, we want to share a modern-day Purim story about a day that seemed to deal a devastating blow to Aleph’s early formation, but ended up leading to the establishment of the Aleph Institute as we know it today.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar’s work in the criminal justice arena began with a small group of Jewish men incarcerated in South Florida Federal Prison. Every Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Lipskar visited these men for three hours to study Torah and share words of inspiration. He also arranged a weekly learning group for their wives, who were struggling to cope with having a spouse in prison. With the permission of the prison chaplain, Rabbi Lipskar ran a bi-weekly study session in the prison with the husbands and wives together. 

The results of this unusual arrangement were dynamic. The men and women were inspired, transformed, and uplifted. They slowly shifted away from the shame and blame that had consumed them and started focusing on how they would live their lives differently once they were free. After several months, they named their coalition “The Aleph Program”—Aleph symbolizing new beginnings, the inner soul, and the eternal opportunity for repentance.

As the men of the Aleph Program learned more about their Jewish heritage, they wished to fulfill more of the Torah’s commandments. So Rabbi Lipskar brought them kippahs, prayer books, and other religious items. But when they requested that the prison provide kosher food, they received a swift and firm “No.”

Rabbi Lipskar approached the warden of the prison to ask why the inmates’ request had been denied. He beseeched the warden to recognize that every human being, even those in prison, has the undeniable right to serve G-d according to their faith, a right that is also protected by the U.S. constitution.  The warden, however, was resolute and unyielding. He was insistent that the only way people would be allowed to serve G-d in his prison was to follow his own faith.

The 19 men in the Aleph Program went on a hunger strike. Instead of accommodating them, the warden decided to disband this sincere group. In what was later dubbed by the group, the “Tuesday morning massacre,” all 19 men were abruptly awoken at five in the morning, handcuffed, and tossed on windowless buses with no explanation. They were then transferred to 12 different prisons around the country by way of hours-long bus routes and overnight stays at – in some cases – tens or hundreds of other facilities. Some men were traveling constantly for more than 6 months as they were transported to different prisons throughout the United States, en-route to their final destination.

It seemed like the end of the Aleph Program. But pretty soon, Rabbi Lipskar began to receive letters from prisons in Atlanta, Texas, and Nevada. “Hey Rabbi, it’s Mike. There’s a group of Jews in this new prison and I want to continue the Aleph Program with them. Can you send us some prayer books?”

“Rabbi, I met some others here who want to learn Torah. What do you suggest I teach them and can you send me some materials?” 

Rabbi Lipskar responded to every letter. He sent religious supplies and books to budding Jewish communities in various correctional facilities. The 19 men of the original Aleph Program were so inspired by what they had gained that they went on to inspire countless others. Within a year, Rabbi Lipskar was receiving requests from hundreds of prisons. Instead of disrupting the Aleph Program, the warden ended up being instrumental in turning it into a national program that impacts tens of thousands of lives to this day.