My name is Mendy Zwiebel, and I’m a yeshiva bochur who spent the last two months in prison, or more accurately, in multiple prisons.
How did I get involved with the legal system at such a young age?
I heard about the Aleph Institute, an organization that helps thousands of individuals who are impacted by incarceration and their shattered families left behind—and it blew me away. And then I found out that Aleph had a summer visitation program, where bochurim like me travel to these prisons with Tefillin, encouragement, and hope, so I joined.
Last summer, in 2022, I visited prisons for a few weeks, but it didn’t feel like it was enough, so I made my plans for the following summer a full year in advance. I even convinced a friend, Menachem Niasoff, to come with me. I told Aleph that I wanted to do a bigger commitment and this year, they set me up with a six-week route. We visited over 50 prisons and about 150 people, and since I know that not everyone is able to do something like this, I want to share some of this memorable experience with you.
The first thing I noticed was how bare you feel when you walk into a facility. You have nothing but your photo ID, a pen and paper, and a set of Tefillin that the guards scrupulously look through. After being patted down, you walk through a few different security chambers where you’re locked in. The second door doesn’t open until the first one closes, even though you’re escorted by the guard. And then you go to the chapel or the activity room to meet the men waiting to visit and learn, all while still flanked by the chaplain or guard.
We’re not even able to leave any gifts or food there, but that’s not what they’re looking for anyway. Instead, the people there latch onto every word we share, even if it’s just the Dvar Torah of the week, or thoughts about Elul. They jump at the opportunity to put on tefillin and more often than not, it becomes a tearful and emotional experience.
Every visit was so powerful, and every single one had us walking out saying “Wow, I can’t believe we’re doing this.” But some stand out as life-changing.
On one of our visits, we came to a prison in California that had only one Jew. We drove hours to get there, and when we finally arrived, there was a group of people from other religions, but the Yid wasn’t there. We spoke to them about sheva mitzvos bnei noach and then asked the guard to call for the Jewish person, but he came back with no answer. Twenty minutes later, we asked him to call again.
He didn’t understand why we were so insistent on speaking to this one person when there were people waiting for us in the chapel, and he told us that the person we were waiting for was in solitary confinement.
I don’t know what I was thinking, or if I even was thinking, but I blurted out, “Can we go see him there?” Completely bewildered, the guard said he’d ask. The sergeant gave clearance and as we started walking I understood the hesitation.
We left the more open and safer feeling part of the grounds and were walking to a long building where guys were locked in rooms for weeks or months on end. There was this tense feeling in the air, and for a second, I wanted to turn back. I felt like I might have been making a mistake—and then we got to his cell.
Ben* was lying on his bed and he wouldn’t even look at me. We drove for hours, and here we were, being ignored. My heart sank. I put my head by the window and just gave him a smile; he still didn’t say anything.
He just got up and stood on the other side of the door. I asked him how he was doing, and he looked at me as if he didn’t understand, so I asked him again, and still no response. I figured I’d try an easier question, and asked if he was Jewish. He quietly mumbled back that his grandmother was. ‘Do you want to lay tefillin? He shrugged.
Taking a chance, I showed him how to lay it on the other side of the door, and then passed it through the small slot. He slowly took it in his hands, and started awkwardly putting it on, with my direction from the other side of the thick cell door.
I made the bracha out loud for him to repeat—and then the atmosphere completely changed.
All of the kicking and screaming from the dark, long hallway seemed to fade away, and in that moment it was just a Yid and Hashem. He just stood there, and for 10 beautiful minutes, he was wrapped in his connection and it almost felt invasive to watch. His eyes closed, and it was like he was being transported to another world.
As he handed the tefillin back to us, he mentioned how this was his first time putting on tefillin. Ben had just had his bar mitzvah in solitary confinement, in a facility hundreds of miles away from everyone he knew.
Every single visit we did was so healing for us and for the people inside. When you travel hundreds of miles to meet people in the loneliest place, sitting there with nothing but their pasts to keep them company—it makes you realize that you’re not as alone as you thought you were, and that there is something bigger that connects all of us.
I learned that it doesn’t matter what background you come from or what you might have accomplished elsewhere, when you’re visiting someone in prison and offering a helping hand, you become their family and it means the world.
If you’re interested in visiting someone in prison or connecting in another way, Aleph has many volunteer opportunities. To help support Aleph and ensure that they can continue to be there for those behind bars and their shattered families left behind, please click here.