Next year as free men: On Rikers Island, a Passover seder for Jewish inmates


New York Jewish Week – Miriam Tohill, a Jewish chaplain intern at Rikers Island, is looking forward to leading Passover vigils for Jewish prisoners this year for the first time. But conditions at the New York City prison complex are not ideal.

For the seders, which will be held on the first and second nights of the holiday, between 70 and 100 inmates will be bussed from various parts of the island complex to a gym that “feels like a high school gym,” said Tohill, 32, who use the pronouns “she” and “they.” It is “discouraging” she said, “for obvious reasons.”

The seder tradition of placing pillows on the room’s flimsy folding chairs, they said, is also forbidden. And although the door of the gymnasium, rather than a door on the outside, will be opened for Elijah the prophet, they said, “Clearly the symbolism is dumb.”

Besides, according to Tohill, it could be a challenge to create a festive mood. Correctional officers will be seated on projectors at the side of the room, which has a “squeaky floor, a very high ceiling, [and] terrible acoustics.”

Still, Tohill hopes the seders at Rikers will be filled with meaning. She and others who work with Jewish inmates at the prison say the holiday — which celebrates the ancient Jewish exodus from slavery to freedom — takes on a different resonance when celebrated by people currently behind bars.

“It’s both easier and harder to talk about slavery, freedom and hope when you’re in prison, but we all hope for freedom and rehabilitation and growth in the future,” said Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer Seed, a Jewish chaplain Rikers. “People had beautiful insights into what freedom means to them, especially talking about how they feel free even when they’re in prison. I was very motivated by that.”

Seed, who was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox seminary in the Bronx, began working as a chaplain at Rikers in 2018. The prison has been criticized for harsh conditions, including evidence of inmates in tiny cages and sleeping on the floor. next to a pile of excrement. The complex was a site of suicides, beatings and more. Nineteen people died at Rikers in 2022 – the prison’s highest death rate since 2013, and the city is required by law to close it by 2027, although it is unclear whether that will be possible.

A barbed wire fence outside inmate housing at New York’s Rikers Island correctional facility in New York, March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Seed said that while Rikers can be a volatile and intense environment, it also gave him a sense of gratitude, emphasizing the Jewish concept of teshuva, or repentance, and the idea that everyone deserves a second chance. Seed said Rikers’ Jewish inmates come from a variety of religious backgrounds, from Orthodox Haredi people who were educated in yeshivas to others who decided to explore their Judaism while incarcerated. He holds weekly services in the prison which draw up to 12 attendees; This week’s teaching discussed the concepts of freedom and slavery as a precursor to the seers.

“I’m kind of buoyed by those values,” Seed said, referring to teshuva. “When I have a rough day, I leave my office, go to a housing area, and people are so grateful for even a few visits, a few minutes when I turn into their housing area, or when I come to teach. and connecting with people, and that alone lifts me up and reminds me why I do this work.”

When I have a rough day, I leave my office, go to a housing area, and people are so grateful for even a few visits.

Year-round, Rikers Island offers kosher food, provided by the city. Síl and Department of Corrections officials would not provide details on where the food comes from, saying it only comes from “various caterers.” And matzah isn’t just available on Passover: Jewish inmates eat the unharmed bread in Rikers year-round because it’s a readily available kosher food option.

There are Orthodox volunteer groups that help bring kosher food into the prison, including members of L’asurim, a non-profit that supports prisoners, and the Lubavitch Youth Organization, a branch of the Chabad Hasidic movement.

Rabbi Shmuel Tevel, who is active in the Lubavitch group, told New York Jewish Week that he regularly visits Jewish prisoners at Rikers and other prisons around the state. “For prisoners who sit in a prison cell in those darkest moments, in a situation where they feel they are at the end of their rope, they have to tie a knot and hang on,” he said. “That’s what we call them.”

A Lubavitch Youth Organization outside of Rikers Island doing outreach work during the Purim holiday. (Courtesy)

Before Passover, his group is delivering 40 pounds of matzah, as well as grape juice, haroset and vacuum-packed plates to certain cells that the inmates will not be allowed to attend permanently.

Zalman Tevel, Shmuel’s brother, who runs the group’s volunteer initiative at Rikers, told New York Jewish Week that he spoke with a guard after visiting inmates during the Purim holiday last month, and the guard told him that the prisoners were “good”. states.”

“They are closer to God,” he said. “It leaves a very good impression.”

Tohill described her work on Rikers, which includes working with inmates in other ways, in similar terms. Tohill said the work gives her the opportunity to provide Jewish instruction in “a place where there is so little room for joy, or for God.” She compared the seder at Rikers to the tabernacle that the ancient Israelites built in the desert.

“We put all this care into it, knowing it’s temporary, and we’re going to take it down again,” Tohill said. “We are in the desert and we desperately need a place to meet Hashem. It’s so temporary and imperfect, but it’s worth putting in the time.”

It’s so temporary and imperfect, but so worth putting in the time

For Tohill, part of her master’s project at Union Theological Seminary, a traditional Protestant seminary in Manhattan that now focuses on “training people of all faiths and none who are called to lead the work of social justice around the world . .” Tohill’s project explores the meaning of Passover for oppressed people.

“I was able to ask, what does this seder do for us spiritually, emotionally, communally?” Tohill said. “What does it promise us if we don’t have access to freedom for people who are in prison? That became a big question for me, a theological question about what does this ritual do and how do we as Jews think about freedom?”

Tohill, who lives in the Manhattan Heights neighborhood, said some of the inmates have written their personal stories and will share their connection to Passover at the seder.

“We have people who have written poems about their understanding of the story of Exodus or the four cups of wine,” Tohill said, referring to a central ritual of the seder. “We have people who have made drawings about their family that feel connected to the story of Passover in different ways.”

The Department of Corrections refused requests to speak with an inmate who was planning to attend a comedian, or to see the inmates’ drawings or writings.

Tohill called Rikers a “broken system” and said the Passover celebration feels much needed. They compared Rikers Island to “a pile of trash floating in the middle of the ocean that we don’t want anyone to notice.”

“Passover is an opportunity to notice and ask who is making it invisible,” Tohill said. “The rest of the people in New York City who are not directly affected by the prison industrial complex have to pretend it’s not happening. I want to ask, this Pesach, that people take the opportunity to stop pretending.”

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