Nevada inmates to receive kosher meals after lawsuit is settled

The Nevada Department of Corrections, responding to an inmate’s lawsuit, agreed to provide Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher-certified meals.

Corrections department officials said this week that the department would obtain rabbinic kosher certification of food prepared for those who joined the lawsuit filed by Howard Ackerman “and demonstrate an ability to maintain such certification,” the Los Vegas Review-Journal reported. A hearing on the lawsuit had been set for April 18.

Ackerman’s lawsuit filed in January claimied the newly instituted “common fare” menu was not kosher and thus violated his First Amendment right of religious freedom.

An injunction ordered by a federal judge in Nevada prevented the department from serving the new menu to Ackerman and included the nearly 300 other inmates who were receiving a kosher diet in the injunction.

Ackerman, 51, is an Orthodox Jew who is serving a life sentence for kidnapping.

Inmates Celebrate B’not Mitzvah

Two women, identified as Carol and Pamela — not their real names — became b’not mitzvah on Saturday, Sept. 5. Both are inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The event is believed to be the first bat mitzvah to take place inside prison walls in the United States.

Carol and Pamela approached the rabbi with the idea of a bat mitzvah six months ago — both are incarcerated for a variety of offenses, including drug-related charges — and their preparation for the day included learning Hebrew and writing a speech. The service took place in the prison chapel, which the Jewish community shares with Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, and was led by Rabbi Moshe Halfon, who has served as Jewish chaplain at the facility for the last three years. Halfon describes himself as a spiritual healer and explorer; he is also a Reconstructionist rabbi and holds a master’s degree in educational psychology and organizational process from Temple University. Halfon is the co-founder of Am Or Olam (People of the Eternal Light), a nonprofit center in Southern California that promotes holistic healing, Jewish spirituality, the arts and, now, prison outreach as well.

Halfon spends Wednesdays through Saturdays at the prison teaching classes, and he conducts services there almost every Friday night and Saturday, as well as additional holiday observances. Halfon’s curriculum includes traditional prayer, but early into his tenure he decided that teaching spirituality, ethics and basic rituals were most important.

Carol, 29, came into the Jewish community not long after arriving at CIW in May 2008. She is of Jewish descent, and was exposed to Judaism as a child through her grandparents, who were Orthodox. Her professional and family life were torn apart as a result of her substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior, and she no longer is in contact with her family. Carol is scheduled for parole in December and hopes to return to a professional life and to one day be reunited with her children, who currently are in foster care.

Pamela, 25, is Jewish and has been incarcerated since December 2007. She did not grow up with a religious background, but by chance was assigned to work in the kosher kitchen at CIW, where she became interested in the community. She has earned an associate degree while at CIW, and she plans to go to college. Her family is currently caring for her 5-year-old son.

Both women undertook intense and dedicated study in preparation for their b’not mitzvah day. Each studied Hebrew on her own time, during hours not filled with work, classes, 12-step programs and other prison-mandated activities.

The women took Hebrew names — Pamela chose Zohara Binah and Carol chose Chava Shira. During the service, they led prayers, chanted the Parashat Nitzavim, and each delivered a devar Torah — both of them on the theme of choosing life. (Even though it wasn’t the week’s portion, the women chose to study Parashat Nitzavim because of their connection to the text and the particular constraints relating to the timing of the service.)

In her writings, Zohara Binah called the Jewish community “a lifeline of hope and light in an abyss of futility and despair.” She said she experiences the “renewal style of Judaism embracing and encompassing other religious philosophies, adding an air of tolerance which is tantamount to spiritual practice behind prison walls.”

Her speech included teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, while Chava Shira spoke personally and pointedly of the mistakes she had made in the past and her commitment to choosing the path of life; she has also written of how she has been influenced by the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Both women are hoping upon release to go to Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish residential addiction recovery center in Culver City.

Numerous volunteers attended the service, including the Rev. Shayna Lester, an interfaith minister who spends two days a week teaching a course in Jewish ethics at the prison, providing spiritual education and guidance to the incarcerated women. During the service, Lester expressed her desire for the two women “to become their truest and most authentic selves.”

In addition, other leaders in the Jewish community flew in from the Bay Area, including Nancy Goldberg, vice president of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco and the surrounding areas. Inmates from the institution’s general population also gathered in the chapel to support the women, participating in the service along with the inmates who regularly attend classes and services. One woman, K, who is not Jewish but a regular at services, holds an advanced degree in economics from Stanford and is incarcerated for a white-collar crime. She said she sought out the community after observing that the women who attended services were “leaving with light in their hearts.”

L, a Jewish inmate who has long been active in the prison’s Jewish community, has been incarcerated for 24 years and has tattoos with the Hebrew words from the Song of Solomon, “I am my beloved, my beloved is mine.” At the time of the service, L was scheduled for release in 14 days and hopes to stay connected to the Jewish community.

Traditional Jewish songs along with standards like “Stand by Me” were played. Carol and another inmate performed an a cappella version of Christina Aguilera’s “You Are Beautiful.”

Institutional regulations prevented Pamela’s parents from attending, but they sent an inspirational message that was read aloud by the inmate congregants. Pamela’s father wrote of his love for her, saying, “I love you yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Her mother sent a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”

Ariella Lewis, co-founder with Halfon of Am Or Olam, read words of inspiration to Carol, speaking of two sephirot (emanations) on the kabbalistic tree of life: Netzach, the quality of endurance, and Hod, the quality of integrity and majesty — qualities needed to stand up as individuals.

The horn blew at 4:30 p.m., calling the inmates back to their units, a sudden and stark reminder that some in attendance were convicted felons and others would leave to resume their lives outside. Zohara Binah, Chava Shira and the other inmates returned to their evening institution regimen.

Actress and writer Annabelle Gurwitch hosts the carbon foot printing series “WA$TED” on Planet Green Network. Her new book, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up,” a love story co-written with her husband, Jeff Kahn, will be published by Crown Books in February 2010.

A Concert Behind Bars


Most Jewish people I know have never set foot in L.A. County jails or a California state prison. Were they to do so, they would discover dangerous overcrowding in most penal institutions.

They would see tens of thousands of inmates struggling to survive the daily routines of prison life. And they would discover their fellow Jews behind bars — men and women who face enormous additional challenges. Too often, these inmates encounter virulent anti-Semitism at the hands of prisoners and guards. Strident missionaries from inside and outside the prison walls harass them. Jails and prisons test the resolve of those who choose to identify as Jews. They are too few in number to stand up to gangs and other hostile forces.

For all that, they remain our fellow Jews and deserve support from the Jewish community. That’s why the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Jewish Federation send Rabbi Yossi Carron, the dynamic Jewish chaplain at Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), to L.A. County jails each week. There he works small miracles.

He offers basic Jewish and Hebrew instruction to small groups of inmates. He provides one-on-one teaching and counseling to prisoners in isolation units. Carron brings in matzah for Pesach, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and hamantaschen for Purim — all carefully scrutinized by a suspicious yet curious jail staff. He brings doughnuts for the guards, knowing that a simple act of compassion for the corrections staff opens up doors (literally and figuratively) for his lifesaving programs.

Carron has a uniquely challenging rabbinate. He teaches, learns and prays with Jewish inmates in the county jails. He serves as the Jewish ambassador to inmates of other faiths and to the corrections personnel. In his work at MCJ and the adjacent Twin Towers facility, Carron embodies a message of connectedness, respect and rehabilitation. He brings hope and healing to a dark and lonely corner of our community.

On Mother’s Day, May 8, I participated in a multifaith program at the MCJ, where more than 400 mostly non-Jewish inmates gathered in the MCJ chapel for a concert conceived and produced by Carron. He is no stranger to the world of music, having worked for many years as a singer and bandleader before entering rabbinical school at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He called in a multitude of favors to win approval of the concert from corrections officers and his fellow chaplains.

Carron called upon several of his musical friends to play in the band, among them Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, a drummer and rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades. For an hour they entertained inmates and staff with a “Jewish revival” that featured Hebrew, English and Spanish music. The strains of “Oseh Shalom” mixed easily with the rhythms of “La Bamba” and “Go Down Moses.” “Jailhouse Rock” was certainly the most raucous and popular song, both for the inmates and the members of the band.

The concert was awesome. Boundaries of race, religion and background melted away in Carron’s energetic presence. Inmates from different cellblocks sat together, clapped and sang along with Carron and his band. I joined Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist chaplains on stage as the chorus for the final number, a rousing rendition of Debbie Friedman’s “Tefillat Haderech” (Prayer for a Journey). After the finale, the audience of inmates rose for a spontaneous standing ovation, a rare display of joyful appreciation within the walls of the county jail.

On Yom Kippur eve, we introduce the hallowed words of the Kol Nidre prayer with the phrase, “We hereby declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed.” The liturgy reflects the harsh reality of human existence and a cardinal precept of Jewish tradition. All of us are imperfect and require atonement and cleansing. Were we perfect, there would be no need for biblically mandated guilt offerings and sin offerings. Were we free of blemishes and imperfections, there would be need for elaborate rites of teshuvah (repentance) and annual Days of Awe. Were we living in a perfect society, there would be no need for tikkun olam, deeds of social justice for the disenfranchised in our midst.

Few segments of the community are as marginalized and disenfranchised as prisoners and their families. Too often we hear public cries to “lock them up and throw away the key.” We know better. We understand that rehabilitation is only possible when we look beyond prisoners’ numbers and beyond the badges of their jailers to see the essential humanity of each individual. We know that imperfect, blemished human beings deserve our care and concern wherever they may be found. We recognize that transformation and redemption come slowly — one small step at a time, one precious human soul at a time.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California


Holiday of Freedom Spent Behind Bars

The high concrete walls of the little-used cafeteria at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles hardly spoke to Passover’s concept of freedom found and bondage ended. But this is where a dozen inmates gathered for their seder, in a setting that cried out Egypt rather than the promised land.
Rabbi Yossi Carron, the jail’s Jewish chaplain, held up a sprig of parsley to redefine the bleak surroundings.
“This is a real great symbol for you,” the Reform rabbi said. “I really want you to believe in the green parts of yourself. This symbol is you.”
The Jewish inmates listened — as they were watched by five sheriff’s deputies. Also on hand were four male and five female volunteers, along with a non-Jewish inmate and a former neo-Nazi skinhead who says he wants to convert. Eight other inmates had signed up for the two-hour ceremony on Thursday, two days before the official holiday, but three had been released and five were unavailable because of pending court proceedings.
A young Filipina was there to help the oldest volunteer, a 95-year-old woman who moved very, very slowly with a walker.
“She came in a wheelchair last year,” Carron said. “She’s been coming for 40 years.”
These aren’t the Jews who get ink for going to prison, better-known cons include Wall Street financial scammers and the like.
The inmates at this seder don’t get much attention, except perhaps from Carron. Jail rules even prohibit journalists from talking to the prisoners or mentioning their names.
No singing of “Dayenu” or hearing a rabbi tell the inmates that “everybody’s in prison somehow” could negate the blinding reality of being in one of the largest brigs in the world — a very violent place. High on one wall were rows of windowpanes, of which 17 were smashed.
Among the celebrants, there were one or two Russian accents plus two more voices bearing Sephardic lilts. All the congregants were color-coded: The three wearing blue jumpsuits were from the jail’s general population; another five wore a combo yellow-and-blue jumpsuit, from the psychiatric ward; four more wore the light aqua of the homosexual unit. The one inmate wearing red — a Dr. Demento look-alike with a gray ponytail — bore the scarlet of a sexual predator. He’s spent the last five Passovers behind bars.
The red-clad inmate arrived in a wheelchair. He gave his chair to the 95-year-old volunteer and then sat at the table.
The deputies stood watchfully at the door. Physical contact such as hugging was kept to a minimum. Trying to keep the mood festive, Carron sang some of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” prompting a deputy to ask his colleagues: “This is Jewish music?”
Later, Carron sang a bit of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
When invited to speak during the seder, all but one inmate did so. Like testimonials at a Baptist tent revival, they talked of how long they’d been “down,” or serving time. For one inmate it was “three months shy of three years.”
A Sephardic-accented inmate said he had been down for two months this year, but did a 10-month stint last year. His interlude of freedom was not particularly spiritual.
“I really don’t get a chance to [pray] when I’m on the outside,” he said.
A young psychiatric-warder, with a tattoo covering the back of his neck, said, “Just coming down the hall, I got a little emotional.”
The former neo-Nazi skinhead — and would-be Jewish convert —said he’s discovered “German Jewish blood in me.”
The deputies were skeptical; they’re wise to inmate scamming. This one, they said, lives in the jail’s homosexual unit, not because he considers himself gay, but because “gay time” is less violent. They also speculate that he wanted a good meal.
The meal was Passover worthy: matzah ball soup, pot roast, kugel, chicken, even gefilte fish. Grape juice filled in for wine.
There was no mistaking the sincerity in the voice of a heavyset inmate with a Russian accent who appeared to be in his 20s. He wore a shiny purple kippah, given to him by Carron.
“I’ve been down about a year,” he said. “All I wanted actually was this kippah. I was praying to get this kippah.”
The deputies seemed to believe him.

Judaism Walks With

Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s memoir of how prison Torah study turned an alcoholic grifter and check-kiter into a successful rehabilitator of Jewish cokeheads, gamblers and other addicts is a blustering and grandiose book, marred by clichés and solecisms. And yet, I liked “The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey From Darkness to Light,” very much.

There have been so many bad recovery memoirs cultivating readers’ cynicism that one can forget how amazing the redemption of a human soul is. Something about the blunt, anti-literary voice of Borovitz (or, more probably, his co-writer, Alan Eisenstock) perfectly conveys the hustler, the tough Jew who turns his talent for persuasion to better ends.

Borovitz’s tale has a picaresque quality, taking us from the Cleveland underworld to prison and finally to the chaplaincy at Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles treatment center lauded by President Bush as a faith-based initiative at its best. But what makes the book not just likable but important is how Borovitz forces his readers to confront the reality of Jewish criminals and junkies — not just in the Meyer Lansky 1930s or the boiler rooms of Wall Street but in anonymous suburbs.

Borovitz was raised by good people. He went to shul. His older brother, Neal, in fact, was already a rabbi by the time Mark did his first prison stint.

Jewish law-abidingness was not my only preconception challenged by “The Holy Thief.” One tends not to associate addiction recovery and Jewish spirituality.

Where do Jews go when they get hooked on amphetamines or alcohol? Not to shul but to places with names like Rolling Hills or Hidden Valley, where, of course, most of the residents are surely Christians. What could it mean for Torah to play a role in addiction treatment?

“The Holy Thief” does not quite get to the heart of this question; the book ends with Borovitz getting out of prison, finding work at the then-new and experimental Beit T’Shuvah, marrying its founder and being accepted to study for the rabbinate at the University of Judaism.

To learn more, I visited Beit T’Shuvah on Venice Boulevard. There, Borovitz and his wife, Harriet Rossetto, the social worker who founded the center, gave me a tour of their small campus. It has dormitories for 100, a cafeteria and a shul that every Friday draws 350 people: current residents, alumni and some neighbors who just like Borovitz’s revival-style services.

Rossetto and Borovitz explained their treatment program for Jewish addicts young and old, some poor, others the children of Hollywood moguls. It’s a combination of worship, Torah study, group therapy, individual psychodynamic therapy and traditional Twelve Step recovery on the Alcoholics Anonymous model.

Somehow, this melding of Judaism with Twelve Stepping struck me as even less probable than the notion of Jewish addicts. I think this had something to do with my sense that the Twelve Steps are, like Wicca — goyish.

AA’s founders were openly Christological; when they enjoined their followers to put faith in a higher power, it was clear whom they meant.

“A power greater than ourselves” leaves room for interpretation, and AA’s emphasis on confessional prayer and humiliation before a deity has worked for Jews, Muslims and even Unitarian-style deists. Still, like other quintessentially American self-help or empowerment formulas, like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking or Stephen Covey’s Mormon-derived habits of highly effective people, AA is clearly rooted in Christianity.

As we sat in Rossetto’s office, I asked the couple, “Am I alone in my perception that the Twelve Steps are, well, Christian?”

Borovitz, tall, burly and 52, stroked his red-and-white beard, sat forward on the sofa and explained patiently that I was mistaken. The Twelve Steps, he said, are closer to Judaism than to the Protestantism from which they derive. After all, Protestantism (in its Baptist and Calvinist strains anyway) places ultimate importance in belief; Judaism, we know, wants belief but insists on action. The mitzvot (good deeds) are primarily concerned with what we do, not what we think.

And although the Twelve Steps, like the Ten Commandments, begin with a requirement of belief, they move to action: make a list of persons harmed, make amends to them, carry the message to others. The 10th step is to take an inventory of one’s failings, and, Borovitz asked, is that not the essence of Judaism, whose holiest day is set aside for confession and atonement?

A version of this review appeared on

Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of the New Haven Advocate, is the author of “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah, American Style” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Sisterhood in the Big House

As she enters her 23rd year in prison, Doris Roldan realizes that she has two choices: she can wallow in self-pity or she can continue to have hope.

On Tuesday evening, Sept. 30, while standing in front of her fellow inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW), Roldan made her choice: "My body is incarcerated but I will not allow my mind, heart or soul to be in prison," Roldan said.

Roldan is one of 26 members of the Shalom Sisterhood, a group of inmates that meets twice a month for Jewish study at the Chino maximum-security prison, who participated in a joint Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur service. The event, which was attended by an equal number of supporters and prisoners, was the seventh of its kind sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), a service of Gateways Hospital, which "assists Jews in jails, prisons and mental hospitals to maintain their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community."

Before the service began, Judith Sable, director of JCPS, welcomed the volunteers and asked for their continued support.

"We’ve got to get out there in the Jewish community that doesn’t believe there are Jewish inmates," Sable said. "We’ve got to do some shanda-busting."

With only 30 minutes to conduct two services, Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president emeritus of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and volunteer Jewish chaplain at CIW, chose to touch on the central themes of each holiday. He spoke about and blew the shofar and he then asked several inmates to read their personal thoughts on teshuvah from books that they assembled before the service.

Jeri Becker, an inmate who was convicted of first-degree murder when her companion killed a drug dealer, has been widely recognized for her rehabilitation. Becker was denied parole last year and is serving her 23rd year in prison.

She read, "I have come to believe that forgiveness is the highest expression of charity. It would be impossible for me to survive this prison environment and maintain my faith in God, love for humanity and joy in living without daily working on expanding my capacity to forgive."

Emelie Bose, an inmate whose mother and sister were also present at the service said, "Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time for me to start over, for it is a new year. I will take this time to remember what I did to get here and how to prevent myself from ever repeating the same mistakes. The best apology I can make is doing whatever it takes to not have to ask for forgiveness again."

After the service all attendees joined in a buffet-style meal donated by Gateways and Art’s Deli — a semiannual break from the low-quality prison food that the inmates normally endure.

"At least we can let them know that at least for this day, they are redeemed," said Golda Mendelsohn, a supporter who has attended various services with the Shalom Sisterhood.

Exodus From Addiction and Shame

These are the Ten Plagues of Prison Life, and we take a drop of grape juice out of our cups for each: Damage left in the wake of destructive addiction. Abusive relationships. Low self-esteem. The embittered spirit. Wrong attitude. Weakening mind and body. Daily degradation. Deprivation. Captivity. Separation from loved ones.

Freedom has a different meaning for the Shalom Sisterhood, a group of 20 inmates who meet twice a month for Jewish study at the California Institution for Women (CIW). As they gather for a seder in the meeting room of this college campus-like institution set among the dairy farms and truck repair shops of Chino, the Shalom Sisterhood considers anew the story of the Exodus and the freedoms of mind and spirit available to them.

Their seder is just one of many held throughout the area that reinterprets the ancient story to shed light on contemporary issues (see sidebar).

Before attending the March 18 event at CIW, Rabbi Paul Dubin wondered what kind of seder is appropriate in a prison. As a board member of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, the sponsor of the event, and former executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Dubin wanted to help the inmates connect their prison experience with Jewish life. He read the haggadah they had prepared and was impressed. "They’re covering the very thing that would have worried me: How do you speak about freedom in a place like this?"

Dubin spoke at the seder about "all those enslavements that warp the spirit and blight the mind, that destroy the soul, even though they leave the flesh alive."

In the "Haggadah Shel Assurim" ("Haggadah of Captivity"), developed by the Shalom Sisterhood with Rabbi Mel Silverman before his retirement last year, the Jewish prisoners include their own stories. Margaret Tanner, who wears a small necklace charm reading "Try God," reads from her selection, "Many women have said ‘I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued.’ This is true for me."

Dawn Ayers is chair of the Shalom Sisterhood. At the seder, she reads her "Letter to Heroin," a declaration of freedom included among many of the inmates’ meditations in the haggadah. "Each day I find courage and strength, not from you, but from my spiritual fold," she reads, "I regret that I had to lose everything to set myself free…. I will stay sober and out of your bondage."

Kim Braun was a preschool teacher from Porter Ranch. Following her divorce and a bitter custody battle, Braun began writing bad checks and got involved in computer hacking. She vows that when she is released, "I’m never even going to have a parking violation."

Mona Blaskey is a mother of nine. When her own mother died last year, she went out drinking with a friend. The night turned violent when a drunken argument with a friend led to a shoving match; an aneurysm burst when her friend fell. It was Blaskey’s first run-in with the law. She is serving six years for attempted murder and will serve half the time for good behavior.

Braun and Blaskey consider themselves lucky. Blaskey recalls her first meeting with the Shalom Sisterhood. When the women introduced themselves and the amount of time they were serving, she says she was "heartbroken" — many of the women at this seder have "indeterminate" sentences of seven, 15 or 25 years to life.

On her left hand, Blaskey has a Star of David tattoo. She says the seder makes her homesick for her father’s Orange County home, where she would spend hours cooking for her family.

Rather than cooking a meal with family, on this night the Shalom Sisterhood enjoys the treat of nonprison food, with dinner contributions from Art’s Deli in Studio City and Gateways Hospital pitching in for the catered chicken dinner. Boxes of matzah and macaroons are available to take back to their rooms; what hot food is left over, Shalom Sisterhood members pile onto plates to share the joys of Passover with roommates. No door is left open for Elijah, but strangers are invited in.

The seder was sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), a service of Gateways Hospital that helps to bring Jewish life and values to prisoners and acts as advocates on their behalf. JCPS Director Judith Sable visits CIW every other week. Since Silverman’s retirement, the prison budget has not supported a visiting rabbi. Though the women say they trust and respect CIW chaplain Father Neil Fuller, Sable is their only regular connection to Jewish life.

Sable, a social worker who visits prisons across the state as a "religious volunteer," says the hardest part of her work is convincing those outside the system that Jewish prisoners are worthy of their help. She points to the sincere efforts of the Shalom Sisterhood, evident at the seder table, to improve their minds, bodies, spirits and lives.

"I would stake my life on it," Sable says. "These women would not commit another crime. They’re upstanding citizens and they’re still here." She wants to offer more to them than twice-monthly visits. "We’re working on doing some shonda-busting," she says.

You don’t have to go to prison to find a Passover seder with a contemporary interpretation of the Exodus. With the service itself encouraging us to place ourselves in the sandals of the Israelites, Passover is uniquely suited to tie together history and personal experience. All around Los Angeles, Jewish and non-Jewish groups offered fun, thought-provoking, inspirational, celebrational seders that take off from the Exodus into a new land of celebration.

At Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, the freedom vibe rings in from West Africa at the popular Reggae Passover. Alan Eder & Friends bring their "Songs of Freedom," joined by African dancers and choirs from the temple and Parks Chapel A.M.E. Church.

If you prefer gourmet to reggae, Wolfgang Puck has it covered — Spago’s seder, with braised Morrocan lamb and tarragon gefilte fish, has become a tradition in its own right, and proceeds go to charity.

The seder may focus on women’s issues, as at Temple Judea in Tarzana or the National Council of Jewish Women. Or reading a haggadah together might aim to bring singles to the Promised Land of their beshert, as did a Passover dinner this year at Meet Me Café. Perhaps the most popular "new order" for Passover is the interfaith seder, of the type Leo Baeck Temple held this year, where members of any community can recognize elements of their own historical struggles in the retelling of the Passover tale.

Whatever the community, whatever the goal, the story of Passover can speak to anyone who has struggled, anyone who has been set free. In congregations and communities across Los Angeles, Passover celebrants are saying, "We’ll leave the door open." — Mike Levy, Staff Writer