When Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel moved to Pittsburgh from New York City in 1991, he spent the next decade driving from jail to jail throughout the Northeast.
He took care to visit every Jewish prisoner he could identify in the region, though there were often no more than a few to be found at each facility.
The first time Rabbi Vogel visited a prison in the late 1970s, "it was an eye-opener to learn there were Jews in prison," he said. Shortly after earning his rabbinical ordination in 1985, he ministered in a prison for the first time. But when he was asked to move to Pittsburgh to open the Northeast branch of the Aleph Institute, an organization that provides social services and Jewish resources to incarcerated individuals and their families, he was faced with a new challenge.
"I literally spent my life behind bars, going from institution to institution, visiting 750 Jews in the Northeast region. At each one the Jewish population was the smallest denomination," Rabbi Vogel said. "I wasn't getting to institutions on a regular basis. Three months passed from when I visited from one time to the next, and that's when I realized I was doing something wrong and needed to change course."
The Pittsburgh-based Aleph Institute Northeast branch, the only organization in the Northeast that provides religious resources to Jewish inmates, has since expanded into an organization with a board, eight rabbis, more than 100 volunteers and a building in Squirrel Hill, with Rabbi Vogel as its executive director. Though Jews never make up more than a tiny fraction of inmates at each prison, for Rabbi Vogel, no Jewish population is too small or remote to be reached by Aleph.
"We do a lot of advocacy making sure that chaplains don't forget the Jewish population in the prisons. ... When they get a Jewish inmate, they know where to turn. They can call on us and we'll be there to help," said Rabbi Vogel, who sits on the board of the Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains Association.
The United States has a Jewish prison population of 70,000, with about 1,000 in Pennsylvania prisons. Allegheny County Jail houses just 10-15 Jewish prisoners out of a total of about 2,800, Rabbi Vogel said.
Jewish inmates in the Northeast have access to Aleph's in-prison programs such as Torah study courses, materials for Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and free access to religious texts. Aleph has even hired a number of former inmates.
Some of Aleph's programs with the greatest impact, Rabbi Vogel said, are those that offer inmates contact with people, be they rabbis, mentors or other Jewish volunteers. "We've seen on a regular basis that when they've got a community that's willing to embrace them and help them rebuild their lives, the chances of recidivism drops enormously."
Aleph also works with families of Jewish inmates to identify the services they need, Rabbi Vogel said. Different families require services as diverse as support groups, spiritual counseling and financial assistance. "Some families are left homeless by the breadwinner. ... There is no blueprint," he said.
Inmates served by Aleph declined to be interviewed because they didn't want their names used.
Patti Love-Anouchi, an Aleph mentor, said the agency's services have helped the female inmate she worked with.
"The young woman was Jewish, but there was very little observance in her home. She was interested in knowing more about Judaism, and the Aleph Institute provides that. ... Over Passover they had a Seder ... and after we discussed the story of Passover and the different foods. It was an eye-opener for her," she said.
"I think it's been a positive factor in her rehabilitation." Ms. Love-Anouchi has worked in rehabilitation for 25 years and has been an Aleph mentor for about six months.
Virtually every jail in the United States is visited by a Christian chaplain, but Rabbis are harder to come by. Before Rabbi Vogel opened the Northeast branch of Aleph, Jewish inmates in Pennsylvania did not have access to Jewish chaplains, said Larry Ludwig, Pittsburgh district director for the Pennsylvania State Parole Board.
"I give a lot of credit to Rabbi Vogel and the Aleph Institute," Mr. Ludwig said. "It's a big opportunity for us to make inroads into the community and let them know that we're here to help those offenders have a positive impact on the community and do whatever we can to prevent them going back to the institution. Rabbi Vogel has been an integral part of that."
"Being at this job for over 40 years, reviewing foul after foul, you can see the impact that a religious service has on these inmates," Mr. Ludwig said. "I think it has a tremendous impact."
An orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Vogel stressed the importance of Jewish teachings in guiding Aleph's work. "There's a Jewish law called 'pidyon shvuyim' -- redeem those who are trapped," he said. "The entrapment can be psychological, it can be physical. Those in prison today are trapped both psychologically and physically. ... In Judaism, we have to work at any cost to provide prisoners resources to become productive members of society. We need to help those who are fallen stand up too."
Marina Bolotnikova: email@example.com or on Twitter at @mbolotnikova.