Prison means shame, regret, loneliness, and loss. Is there a way back; is there a way to repent from grave mistakes? Is there a way to fix a broken life and still contribute to society and the community?
Aaron is trying. Twenty years ago, Aaron made more than a big mistake; he committed a “home invasion”. He is still paying for this crime. While in prison, Aaron learned carpentry and other skills. At the same time, he also learned about Judaism and has returned to his Jewish roots under the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman, director of the Hinda Institute (jpafil.org). Since the Hinda Institute services all Jewish inmates in Illinois at the federal, state, and county level, Rabbi Scheiman visits Aaron at least once a month.
Aaron now studies the Torah, prays daily and observes the Jewish holidays. When questioned, Aaron explains why he returned to his Jewish origins: “G-d convinced my heart to return to my people, and Rabbi Scheiman’s love and respect for his Jewish roots inspired me.”
Just recently, Aaron combined all these skills and convictions and decided that he wanted to contribute to his community and synagogue. He agreed to build a podium (a “shtender” in the Yiddish vernacular) for praying and lecturing. The shtender will be used by the Chabad and Free of Niles center for the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) classes run by Rabbi Lazer Hershkovich. When asked why he did this good deed and volunteered to build the shtender, Aaron replied simply, “Because I am Jewish and have love and respect for Rabbi Scheiman and my Jewish people.”
On the other side, Rabbi Lazer Hershkovich who runs the JLI classes in Niles was happy to finally have his own shtender. Currently, the number of people attending the JLI classes is increasing. Rabbi Lazer desperately needed a podium to speak from. Rabbi Lazer said, “Everyone in our JLI classes has their own unique role. We are here to help everyone connect as individuals. It is amazing that someone in Aaron’s predicament has found a way also to connect and help others in Jewish education. We hope after Aaron is rehabilitated, he will be able to learn further. We look forward to forming additional creative partnerships with the Hinda institute.”
Rabbi Scheiman agreed, “Aaron expressed that though he can’t yet physically be in the synagogue, by investing his energy, blood, sweat and tears, in some way, he is inside the synagogue”. As for Aaron, he feels that the Hinda Institute education, teachings, prayer and support for Jewish inmates helped change his life around.
In Judaism, we learn that G-d always gives us a way back. Aaron still has a long way to go, and many years to work on himself, but each step counts. Aaron proves that small contributions, even from a place as dark as a prison, can make a difference. Rabbi Scheiman concurs, “This is a classic case of the superpower of the Hinda institute; we take shady individuals and turn them into sunny human beings”.