November 16, 2018

What Does Passover Mean When You’re in Prison?

This isn’t a metaphorical question.

Passover is a joyous holiday about freedom. It’s about remembering what it was like when we were slaves, telling the story about how we were set free, and celebrating that freedom. It’s about all the wonderful things God did for us. It’s a reminder to be grateful for what we have and to be kind to the strangers among us.

This year a group at our synagogue has been learning about issues regarding mass incarceration, and has been partnering with San Quentin State Prison and, in particular, the Jewish inmates there.

So it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when I walked into the synagogue kitchen on Friday morning to help with the Passover meals being prepared for congregants when I found we were also preparing 100 portions of matzo ball soup and brisket for San Quentin, some for a seder there and the rest for individuals to eat in their cell.

It was inevitable, as I plopped matzo balls into to-go containers and poured au jus onto brisket portions, that I would begin to wonder what a Passover seder would be like in prison. What does it mean to observe a holiday celebrating freedom when you’re an inmate?

Outside the prison walls, we use Passover to conjure all sorts of metaphors, such as, “What is making me feel like I’m in prison? In what ways am I allowing my true self to be cast aside or shut away in service to the expectations or desires of others?”

We also use it to focus on injustice in our midst, and what we can do to stop it, for instance, “Do I only buy things from companies that are paying a living wage? Is there human trafficking going on in my town, and what am I doing about it?”

These are important discussions for us to have with ourselves and others; I do not mean to discourage or minimize them. But the United States locks up more people per capita than any other country, according to many sources, including “>Religious and Reform Facebook page to see additional photos and behind-the-scenes comments, and