By Loren Berman and Joe Lakier
Loren Berman, Moishe House Regional Jewish Educator and MHWOW host, Joe Lakier, MHWOW host, and Yehudah Webster, Moishe House Park Slope resident, recently hosted the first MHWOW program at Rikers Island, a prison complex located just north of Queens, New York. Rikers Island houses almost 12,000 inmates and employs over 10,000 employees.
Loren, a current Rabbinic student and educator for East Coast/Mid-Atlantic area Moishe Houses, works with the New York City Department of Corrections to coordinate holiday services at Rikers Island (including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). On this trip, Loren, assisted by Joe and Yehuda, hosted a first and second night pesach seder for about 45 inmates (sponsored by MHWOW).
I was struck by the generosity and challenge of this task and reached out to hear their stories. Both Joe and Loren expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to facilitate seders for men and women, young and old, who are without consistent Jewish practice and community.
The following are Facebook posts from Loren and Joe recounting their experience creating Jewish community and leading a spiritual experience for inmates, posted with the authors permission.
Saturday night I co-facilitated Pesach Seder at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, which is an island a stones throw from LaGuardia Airport and home to 12,000 inmates working their way through the criminal justice system typically before sentencing. I was there with Loren Berman (a Rabbi friend) and Yehudah Webster (another non-ordained friend). It was such a privilege to meet the guys and the girls that were there.
About 45 inmates participated under the watchful eyes of 20 or so officers. Hearing their stories was at times painful. But I also saw so much positive energy. Most were looking to the future and something better. I was touched by how much they appreciated me being there. Some claimed innocence, some admitted mistakes, some were there because of multiple infractions.
At the Seder itself some were there to learn more, some were there for the extra holiday meal, some were there to break out of the boredom of the normal routine, some were there to hold onto a piece of their Jewish identity and have some semblance of tradition in an otherwise upside down world.
They called me Rabbi Joe and the weight of what I represented was heavy on my shoulders. I was asked a few times what kind of Rabbi I was and I answered “just a Jewish Rabbi.”
One guy my age, who I found out attended yeshiva in Israel the same year I was there, was at the Seder with his mom — also incarcerated and at the women’s table. There was another 18 year old with a black eye and cuts from a recent fight — originally from Flatbush. Another middle aged man from Midwood and with a white beard wanted to make sure he had a revi’it (4 oz.) of grape juice for kiddush (Jewish prayer).
While we had to ration it out and most inmates got about an ounce, we had him come up and do kiddush for everyone on a nearly full cup. For Rachtzah (ritual hand washing at the Seder), I stood at the gymnasium water fountain slowly filling up the cup and pouring water over the hands of the inmates — a symbolic gesture of royalty — the irony not lost on anyone, yet it was deeply moving.
At the end, as the officers were breaking up the Seder and escorting inmates back to their buildings, a small group of us danced and sang. Culminating the Seder with the song “next year in Jerusalem” — a song for the ages that represents everything about hope that have gotten us through the darkest of times and the promise of a better tomorrow.
My thoughts are honestly just a whirlwind and I feel a lot of sadness but joy too.
One thing is clear though. I want to go back.
You’re sitting with a guy in solitary confinement. He sits in his thick steel-fortified 9×9 cell for 23 hours a day. He sleeps there, eats there, showers there, and goes to the bathroom there. He reads and watches TV there too. When he leaves for his 1 hour of direct sunlight — spent alone because he is not allowed to mingle with anyone but officers — his legs are shackled and arms cuffed to his waist.
You’re sitting with him in his isolated facility to talk about the Jewish story of slavery and freedom because it’s Passover. Meanwhile, he is handcuffed to the wall. You sit at a table together, separated only by a Seder plate and sweet Kedem grape juice, the main draw to Jewish holidays in jail. We have 15 minutes together, which turn into 30.
He is the fifth child — the one who didn’t show up to the communal Seder, but not because he didn’t want to.
He has faith. He feels spiritually free. But matzah isn’t his ticket to freedom — as a Jewish-identified person in jail, he eats matzah on a daily basis. Neither is recalling the 10 plagues — he is treated like wild beast.
He likes to rap and sing, but he doesn’t like the content he’s used to — it’s inappropriate and negative, he says.
So we turn to the songbook and together learn “Kol HaOlam Kulo.” We pierce the thick walls of the facility with our combined voices as we sing for 10 minutes, just like a late night chassidic Tisch: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid.”
Are all nights in jail the same?
We wanted the youngest person to recite Mah Nishtana, asking and proclaiming “How different is this night from all other nights?!”
Any 26 year olds in the house? A few raise their hand. 25? Some more hands. 24? 23?
I continue, almost like an auctioneer. Do I have 22? 21? 20? 19? 18? One raises his hand.
SOLD to David at 18-years-old (not his real name).
He sang the Mah Nishtana beautifully as the others listened in.
David. 18 years old. His ID badge says Adolescent. He’s clean cut and wearing a drab jumpsuit now, but his mugshot has him in a colorful hoody and long hair.
He did some stupid stuff to get to jail. He may be guilty in the eyes of the law, but his deep eyes reveal a youthful innocence.
He seeks me out to show me his personal Haggadah, to ask me about my Chol HaMoed plans, to tell me what his family does on Passover. He wants attention, but no more than any reasonable person might.
The next night, David shows up.
He has a black eye and fresh red mark on his cheek.
“I got jumped,” he says.
Will he be doing Mah Nishtana again? Not tonight.
Why is tonight different from last night?
Last night, David was just a kid.
Tonight, not so much.
This is a dialogue I had with one person before Rosh HaShana davening began, as I saw him sitting alone, looking a bit lost.
“Hi,” I open.
“Hi,” he responds.
A few seconds of silence pass.
“How you doing?” I ask.
“Ya know…” he says
A few more seconds of silence pass.
He continues: “I’m trying to be positive. To be grateful, ya know.”
…a few more seconds pass…
“What are you feeling thankful for right now?”
“I’m thankful for being a Jew. It’s the only thing I really have going for me right now.”
“Wow,” I said, “what a gift it is to have that.”
“Yah, it’s what I wake up thinking everyday in here. Thank God I’m a Jew.”
I respond: “Waking up to positive thoughts like that can be helpful…you know, thousands of years ago, the rabbis wrote that very idea as a prayer, one of the first things lots of Jews say in the morning.”
“Really?” he asks with surprise.
“Yah, check it out”…I show him the prayer.
“Oh! The morning blessings. I learned about that growing up in yeshiva. I guess I forgot…. Raising me Jewish is something I’m grateful to my father for. I feel I’ve let him down.”
“He died a few months ago. We hadn’t been on talking terms for a while. I sent him a letter from here with an apology, which he got before he died.”
“It must have felt comforting to know he heard from you before he passed.”
“Yah. I hope I can turn myself around, embrace my Judaism, and make him proud.”
“It sounds like you’re well on your way,” I say.
A few seconds pass.
“Well,” I say, “we’re about to get started with our prayers, and one of the first things we’ll say is Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, “How great is it to be in your tents, Jacob.” We hope that for at least one day, we can make this place feel like a spiritual home, like Jacob’s tent.”
This man’s eyes well up with tears.
“By the way,” I ask, “what was your father’s name?”
He pauses, Cracks a hint of a smile and says, “His name was Jacob.”