On a bright Sunday morning, Shiffy Lichtenstein joined a circle of women sitting with journals on their laps. Shiffy, a licensed social worker, opened the support session with a question prompt: “What is freedom?”
The women wrote in their notebooks before sharing their answers out loud. They were startling in their simplicity.
“Freedom is being able to shop in a grocery store and choose whatever you want to eat.”
“Freedom is sending your husband a birthday card without second-guessing if it will get past the censors.”
“Freedom is giving your daughter a hug.”
The women ranged from young to old, and from frum to unaffiliated. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they all had something in common: a family member in prison.
Heartbroken mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and daughters, they were attending this support group facilitated by the Aleph Institute to obtain strength and inspiration from others in a similar plight.
“Family members of incarcerated individuals are the most underserved, judged, isolated and stigmatized demographic,” says Shiffy. “In recent years, there has been increased empathy and understanding for people impacted by issues like mental health and divorce. Those affected by incarceration are still treated with extreme judgment and scorn. Good people become pariahs. The pain, shame, trauma and guilt that these families carry is gut-wrenching.”
Several years ago, Shiffy was working as a life and relationship coach when a client of hers told her about the “Aleph Family,” a community of women with loved ones in prison who had been brought together by the Aleph Institute. “A lot of these people could really use your help. They’re going through a lot,” her client said.
Shiffy was put in touch with Aleph’s Family Services Department and soon began coaching a number of individuals grappling with the incarceration of a relative.
“Once I got involved, there was no looking back,” says Shiffy. “As a relationship coach, I had worked with older singles and struggling couples. But these people were dealing with those same issues plus a whole lot more. It was all-encompassing and consuming work. Their lives had been shattered, and my mission became to help them pick up the pieces.”