Prison Seder Led By Hillel Students

While many Harvard students were able to go home for Passover, inmates in Boston's Suffolk County House of Corrections were not so lucky.

However, they still did get to celebrate the holiday in a model Seder on Sunday evening with six members of the Harvard Hillel.

Prison Rabbi Ari Shapiro and the six students recreated the Passover event for about 10 inmates. The model Seder was held a day before the actual celebration because the students were leaving for home to spend the holiday with family and friends.

Sarah E. Rimsky '98, the organizer of the event, said it was especially ironic that prison inmates lacked freedom to be with loved ones because Passover is a celebration of liberty--the holiday is a commemoration of the exodus of Israelites out of Egypt.

"The issue raised with inmates is what freedom they celebrate when much of it has been taken away," she said. "What we were stressing with the inmates was what freedoms one could hold onto when a lot of them have been superficially confiscated."

After the six Harvard undergraduates took the Red Line to the medium-security correctional facility, Rimsky said there were feelings of uncertainty as students were subjected to strict security--they were forced to take off their jewelry and leave their backpacks and jackets behind at the facility's entrance.


However, Rimsky said the six students were surprised by the inmates pleasant and non-threatening demeanors.

"We all have this idea of what a criminal is and nobody there fit it," Rimsky said.

Robert C. Hyman '96 and Benjamin Lebwohl '99 were two of the representatives of Hillel who helped to conduct the Seder. Hyman said that the inmates possessed a sincere religious fervor.

"Before, I had the impression that it was to impress the parole board or something, but actually, I realized that they have nothing to do because their lives are so restricted," he said. "You get to talk to someone else who is not a prisoner or a guard. Unlike some of the prison administration, chaplains actually care about the welfare of the prisoners--they're the good guys of the system."

Rimsky said that the celebration was true to the inmates' heritage as each inmate who attended the Seder had at least one parent of Jewish heritage.

However, Rimsky said there were some differences between a traditional Seder and the one conducted at the correctional facility.

"One of the traditions of the Seder is that the father hides a piece of matza and the kids run around and find it, and when they find it, they ask for a reward," Rimsky said. "Because we were in a prison, we weren't able to that."

Rimsky said a lot of the service had to be conducted in English rather than the traditional Hebrew because many inmates could not read the language.

Furthermore, chaplains from every denomination except the Nation of Islam were present, according to Hyman.

Rimsky said that the prison would not allow male and female prisoners to celebrate the holiday together. Therefore, Tally Zingher '99 said she had to conduct a personal Seder for the one female inmate.

Hyman said that the idea was inspired by Joshua D. Fine '96, who has attended Seder in a maximum-security woman's prison in New York each year in his capacity as the son of the facility's rabbi.

Stephen E. Gordon '98, who is chair of the Harvard Hillel Social Action Committee, suggested the event and Rimsky then organized it.

According to Rimsky, the Suffolk County House of Corrections was chosen because it is the site of the Prison Education Outreach Program with Phillips Brooks House.

"We're going to try and make it a lasting partnership between Hillel and the prison for other Jewish holidays as well," she said