May 24, 2019

On Observing Passover In Prison

“Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt. It is often referred to as the “festival of freedom.” My Passover in prison was at a place called the Wallkill Correctional Facility, 75 miles north of New York City. As the holiday approached, I worried about my family, and how my circumstance was hurting them. I was prosecuted for tax evasion, which I admit to, and for additional crimes where I maintain my innocence. Yes, I felt that I was wrongly accused of stealing millions of dollars from the nonprofit that I ran, but there I was sitting in prison, stewing in guilt, self-pity and pain.

Being behind bars at any time is already a terrible experience. Add in a holiday that highlights the end of bondage, then the ordeal becomes ironic and sad. I didn’t know how Passover would play out. I’ve been religious my entire life, and even in prison I remained a devout Jew. I never took off my yarmulke while incarcerated. A corrections officer once called me a “Jewish n-word” for refusing to remove my skull-cap.

Religious seders (which means “order” in Hebrew) are not prison-friendly. They involve food and drinks that are inaccessible to inmates. Things like four cups of grape juice per person, and stacks of unleavened bread called matzoh. I was anxious imagining how the administration would react to me wanting to celebrate Passover. I went to our rabbinical chaplain and asked for help.”

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