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