CHICAGO — The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer Jews a fresh, new year and a chance to ask God for forgiveness.
Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman said those opportunities should be extended to current and former inmates within the Illinois prison system.
Scheiman runs the non-profit Hinda Institute with two of his sons — like him, both are Orthodox rabbis — and their two wives. The family counsels Jews in prison and those who have been released, and also their relatives and friends.
"We're in this season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and everyone in their own lives is asking God for a second chance, and we should apply that to members of society who have made the mistake of violating the 11th Commandment — Thou Shalt Not Get Caught," said Scheiman, a former West Rogers Park resident who now lives in Des Plaines.
"It should be extended to people who have made errors and were actually caught and paid their time and paid their price. Why must they continue to be punished and re-punished once they're out of prison? Why can't people be more forgiving?"
Scheiman first started visiting Jewish convicts about a month after he moved to Chicago in 1980. He has operated what was then called the Jewish Prisoners Assistance Foundation since 1983. The name changed to Hinda Institute in 2013 to honor his wife, Hinda, who died from breast cancer. Hinda also stands for "Helping INDividuals Ascend," Scheiman said.
In 2013, Scheiman also added family members to the nonprofit, which runs on about $180,000 a year. Scheiman's son, Chaim, visits inmates in Cook County Jail every Wednesday and is teaching about 35 ex-convicts Jewish morals, values and even how to read the Torah.
"We're here to help all Jews become better people. It's good to see when the [inmates] are happier and they're moving on with their lives," said Chaim Scheiman, a Rogers Park resident. "We're part of that, so it's very rewarding, especially when the mothers thank us and thank us."
Chaim's wife, Chaya, works with female convicts and organizes meetings with family members of convicts.
"The most rewarding part is the fact that we're helping these people who everybody else doesn't really support," Chaya Scheiman said. "Most of society doesn't give them the help they need. We treat everybody as a good person and really love them."
Another of Scheiman's sons, Mendel, who lives in Carbondale, goes to several prisons and jails around the state for in-person visits. Scheiman, who also travels to prisons statewide, estimates he and Mendel drive about 50,000 miles a year each.
Mendel's wife, Yochi, organizes programs with students at Southern Illinois University, who write cards on holidays like Rosh Hashanah (which began Sunday night), Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, to the 100-150 Jewish inmates currently in Illinois prisons and jails.
Scheiman said the program has been a success because, while national recidivism rate is more than 57 percent after one year of release, he estimates those in the Hinda Institute are around 10 percent.
He also said the Hinda Institute exists to show there is good in all people.
"Our program is not based to judge someone on their actions, but we're seeing them as human beings," Scheiman said. "Our goal is to reach deep enough into each of these individuals to find that pure diamond they have on the inside and make them realize the goodness they have inside. And hopefully they'll turn into someone who will be a benefit to society."
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