When a new inmate arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, prison guards pulled a hood over the convict's head and led the prisoner down a long, stone corridor to an 8 x 12 foot solitary cell. "No prisoner is seen by another after he enters the wall," boasted a warden in 1831. For the remainder of their sentences, condemned prisoners languished in solitary confinement, deprived of contact not only with fellow inmates, but also with the outside world, including their families. Charles Dickens, the famous British author, visited ESP and compared imprisonment there to death. He described the hated hood that newcomers donned as a "dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between [the prisoner] and the living world."
The curtain between humane treatment and cruel solitude lifted in 1913, when solitary confinement at ESP officially ended. Within ten years, programs that prepared inmates for life outside ESP's bleak stone walls were implemented. Prisoners studied together in classrooms, exercised together on ball fields, and prayed together in a chapel. At the center of this reform movement stood Alfred Fleisher, who became president of the prison's Board of Trustees in 1924. Fleisher, a Jew, also supervised the construction of a small prison synagogue, which he regularly attended. Friends described Fleisher as a caring man, someone with a boundless ability to comprehend human suffering.
One program that Fleisher arranged, produced unexpected and far-reaching consequences. He invited Joe Paull, known as "The Iron King," to perform his strongman act at ESP. Paull could twist iron bars into pretzels and rip telephone books in half. As it turned out, though, the strongest muscle in his body was invisible, his heart. During his performance, Paull realized his contribution was limited: "In my prison audience were men who needed other types of help. I resolved to do all I could to contact rehabilitated inmates and directly help them."
Although he helped all prisoners, Paull took special interest in the tiny Jewish community behind bars. He donated kosher meat from his butcher shop; he visited Jewish inmates; and he regularly attended services at ESP's tiny synagogue, later named in memory of Alfred Fleisher, who died suddenly in 1928. Paull also looked for jobs for parolees, who needed employment before they could be released. The muscleman with the robust heart even sent paroled convicts to the beach so they would get some sun and lose their "prison pallor."
Joe Paull's hesed (kindness) was deeply appreciated by the Jewish inmates. On one occasion they wrote him, saying, "It is wonderful that men such as yourself are considerate enough to give of their valuable time in order to make life a little more pleasant for the less fortunate."
The Aleph Institute—Taking Care No Matter Where
The need for compassionate people like Joe Paull and Alfred Fleisher still exists. Today, approximately 8,000 Jews live behind bars in state and federal prisons across the United States. They leave behind tens of thousands of innocent spouses, children, and parents. Because Jewish inmates are a small percentage of the prison population, they face difficult challenges maintaining their Jewish heritage. The Aleph Institute, founded 25 years ago under the direction of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, offers prisoners multiple hesed programs, including pen pal programs, religious instruction, kosher food, and ritual materials. And because a loved one’s imprisonment destroys the fabric of family life, causing emotional and financial scars, Aleph offers family support services such as financial assistance, psychological counseling, and religious guidance.
Your Hesed Can Help
Visit the Aleph Institute's website to participate in one of these Aleph Institute programs:
1. Be a pen pal with a kid who has a parent in jail.
2. Donate birthday and holiday gifts to kids who have a parent in jail.
You can make a difference in someone’s life. Don’t wait!