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Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar

11 April 2024

In 1981, I founded an organization called the Aleph Institute for Jewish men and women who have been incarcerated or are serving in the military. Among other things, we launched a program whereby the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed us to take prisoners that met certain criteria out of prison for a two-week furlough. In this time, they were able to learn about the various prayers and laws that are relevant to a Jew living in the restricted environment of prison.

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The Rebbe had inspired the founding of this organization, so it was only natural that, in 1985, when we took a group of twenty men out of prison, we brought them to Crown Heights for the Shabbat after Shavuot.

That Shabbat, at 1:30 PM, we knew that the Rebbe would be speaking at a public gathering, a farbrengen. Since there were no sound systems on Shabbat, and you had to be pretty close to the Rebbe to hear him well, people would reserve their places early in the morning, sit there for the prayers, and then remain for the farbrengen. But, these men from prison were not used to keeping such a rigorous Shabbat schedule, and so we arranged for a group of yeshivah students to sit around a table, holding the space for them.

After prayers, our group went to eat something, and then at approximately 1:25 PM, we started coming back to 770. The students got up and the men slipped into their places, crowding into this cavernous synagogue along with thousands of other Jews.

Normally, when the clock hit 1:30, you knew the Rebbe was within seconds of coming out; he was very precise. But this time, Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, came downstairs from the Rebbe’s office.

“Where is Sholom Ber Lipskar?” he called out.

I was at the other end of the room, and the only way I could get across was by climbing over tables and peoples’ heads, but everybody was very accommodating.

“The Rebbe suggested that the men from prison should not sit together at one table,” Rabbi Groner finally said to me.

The majority of people gathered in that room looked like chasidim, with black hats and beards, but these men were all clean-shaven, with modern clothes and borrowed yarmulkes. “If a group like this sits together,” he explained, “people will start to ask where they are from, and they might get embarrassed. Instead, they should spread throughout the room.”

He also added that the Rebbe was planning on presenting some bottles of vodka to various groups or individuals present, for them to take back and share with their communities. It was the Rebbe’s way of giving strength to a community, and it was considered a great honor. “The Rebbe said that this group deserves to be encouraged in this way more than any other group,” Rabbi Groner informed me. But again, since this special gift and announcement would identify them as people from prison and might make them feel uncomfortable, he was not going to give it to them.

With that, we quickly scrambled to rearrange the seating. We got it all done and the farbrengen ended up starting only five minutes late.

That Shabbat, there were a number of rabbis who had come to spend Shavuot with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe taught an extraordinarily sophisticated Kabbalistic reading of the Vision of Ezekiel, also explaining its practical implications. In addition, he addressed the rabbis directly, admonishing those who failed to regularly refresh their knowledge of Jewish law, relying on the rabbinic ordination they had received twenty years before. “One has to be sure to always review everything one has learned!” he declared.

In the middle of all this, he gave a talk to the prisoners. He began by noting that while the Torah mandates various punishments for different crimes – financial, corporal, and even capital punishment – prison, as a punitive measure, is not one of them. This, proposed the Rebbe, is because “a person’s purpose on earth is to serve G-d by making the world a G-dly place. Therefore placing a person behind lock and key deprives him of the opportunity to fulfill his life’s purpose and is therefore contrary to the intention behind his creation.”

He then noted that attitudes “in enlightened countries, who act in a just and decent manner,” have also begun to align with the Torah’s approach, as they “try to minimize the suffering of their prisoners, so as to help them return to good conduct.” In some cases, added the Rebbe, prisoners are also afforded the opportunity to follow their religion, and, in recognition of good behavior, they are occasionally allowed to take a furlough during their sentence.

The Rebbe said all this without directly stating that there was a group of prisoners present.

Later, the Rebbe used the example of a prisoner as a lesson for others. In a sense, every Jew is imprisoned: From birth, each person’s soul is “imprisoned” within a body; and additionally, we are all collectively in Exile, sent away from the Land of Israel, deprived of our Holy Temple, and unfree to perform the mitzvot associated with it. Those who are in prison, then, are in a triple exile. Why would G-d take His chosen people, and throw them in prison like this? Even in such a dark place, there must be some positive to be found, because everything that comes from G-d is kindness.

For the prisoner, and for every Jew, the answer is the same: “This descent is for the sake of an ascent,” because even “when in Exile, one can use this opportunity to reveal G-dliness in the world.” He was telling the prisoners, effectively, that they must be on the very highest levels, because only they could elevate such a dark place.

As we translated the Rebbe’s words to these men, separately, in the different areas where they were sitting, they were blown away. Here was a leader who cared even about the Jew in jail, and who took every precaution to avoid embarrassing him. And while he was tough with the rabbis, admonishing them for not studying enough, he uplifted the members of our group.

“He calls the rabbis to task and elevates the prisoners,” one of the guys observed. “He’s giving support to those who need it most. If you tell the rabbis how nice they are, they won’t add anything; if you tell the prisoners how bad they are, they’ll get worse.

“I’ve never heard a rabbi like this.”

Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar has been serving as a Chabad emissary in Florida since 1969. In 1981, he founded The Shul of Bal Harbour, as well as The Aleph Institute, an organization dedicated to the welfare of prisoners and their families. He was interviewed four times in the years 2009, 2011, and 2024.