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Jews behind bars: Part 3 – Passover behind bars

Passover seder
Passover seder plate

It is known as the Festival of Freedom. But for many Jews, that freedom is somewhat illusory. In part three of this series, I look at Jews in prison observing Passover behind bars.

For over two decades, Sid Kleiner would spend Passover with his family – his very extended family. Kleiner would pack up his matzot, kippot and a guitar and go off to prison. There, he conducted seders for Jewish prisoners marking Passover.

“Along with separation from family, there is a painful theme to the holiday— redemption, freedom from bondage and captivity,” Kleiner writes. “Jewish inmates gather around the Seder table and declare that, ‘this year we are free.’ It isn’t easy to make this declaration with barbed wire, high walls, and correctional officers in view. We seize this opportunity to remind our blue-garbed brethren that, in soul and spirit, the essence of freedom remains in tact. One need not surrender one’s soul and spirit to institutionalization.”


American Prison: The Forgotten Jews

To get a glimpse of what a seder behind bars looks like, take a look at an excerpt from the documentary American Prison: the Forgotten Jews. The film focuses on Charles Johnson, a Jewish prisoner who is serving a life sentence without parole for burglary. Johnson talks about freedom, Egypt and his own imprisonment. We also get a glimpse of his “Jew box” which contains tefillin, a shofar and other pieces of Judaica.

What special food can a Jewish inmate hope to receive for Passover? Policies and practices vary from institution to institution. Here’s what Correctional Services of Canada listed a few years ago on its page, “Religious Diets – Guidelines for Faith Communities“.

It is requested that each Jewish inmate be provided with the following foods for the Passover observance:

  • Salami (5 lb.)
  • Matzoh biscuits (2 lb.)
  • Cookies (if certified “Kosher for Passover”) (1 lb.)
  • TV dinners (“Kosher for Passover”) (1 each day for supper)
  • Chickens (kosher) (4 lb.)


Passover in a Colorado Prison

Catering to the needs of Jewish prisoners is no easy task – especially at Passover. Writing in the Pepperdine Law Review, Aviva Orenstein looks at some of those challenges. “On a very practical level, Passover’s exacting food regulations and the complicated logistics of the Seder meal demand the prison’s administrative attention, money, and guard time.” As well, “prison officials necessarily become entangled in religion when they must decide who is sincere—and hence who deserves the special (and often more expensive) religious dietary accommodations. … Prison officials are rightfully skeptical of the ‘Church of Red Wine and Steak’ and any other less blatant conversion of a food preference into a religious requirement.”

At the same time, Orienstein notes, “Passover celebration allows prisoners to affirm their individual commitment to Judaism and their collective affiliation with all who are not free. Perhaps most importantly, it raises questions about the nature of freedom, and who or what constitutes the Pharaoh in the prisoners’ lives.”



Passover and Prison

What do the volunteers get in return for the time spent away from their homes during the holidays? Here is a thank-you note to a group of volunteers who conducted a seder at Hendry Correctional Institution in Florida.

“I really felt like I was loved once more by Hashem, by Him bringing you and the rest to us here as He, Blessed be His Name, has done so many times before. I, myself, haven’t had any visitors for the last five or six years, even though I have several children, some of them already grown and married!

“Thank you once again for spending Passover and the rest of the holidays with us here at Hendry. May Hashem bless you many times over and over again for the wonderful mitzvot that you and the rest perform in Hashem’s honour. I give thanks to Hashem for Trudy and Sid, Beatrice and Sam, Susan and Burt, Sam and, of course, our dearest and beloved Cantor Carolyn, our favourite cantor. For all of you, may the name of Hashem be always blessed. Baruch Hashem!”

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