A Celebration of Freedom Behind Bars

Across the country, at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York State, seven women hosted their own seder this year.

“There is an implicit challenge in celebrating the feast of freedom behind bars,” said Rabbi Robert E. Fine, Jewish chaplain of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and rabbi of BetTorah in Mt. Kisco, New York. Fine has struggled with this paradox since his first prison seder in the spring of 1986. “While these women are denied fundamental freedoms like choosing what they will do each day,” Fine said, “there are other levels—inner spiritual levels—of liberating oneself from whatever tyrannies have oppressed.” Lilith reported on the Jewish women at Bedford Hills in one of the magazine’s first issues, in the 1970s, and has sent copies of the magazine, and other materials, to the prison from time to time.

This year’s participants—incarcerated mostly for violent crimes —range in age, length of jail sentence and exposure to Judaism. The seder means a great deal to them, in large part because the surrounding community has gotten involved. The BetTorah Sisterhood sponsors the event, and the inmates have grown to know the volunteers’ families over the years. In addition, each prisoner is permitted to invite her own guests to share the occasion, and children often attend. Rabbi Heather Altman of BetTorah led the service this year and used the Ma’ayan hagada, written from a feminist perspective. “There was a wonderful, almost celebratory feeling. The women were so appreciative.” Rabbi Fine recalled. “Whether it’s their own habits that have enslaved them, relationships that have enslaved them—these women are no different from others in identifying what holds them back from what they can achieve in life. Each person needs to identify the Egypt inside that they need to be liberated from.”

Donations for the Jewish women’s program of Bedford Hills can be sent to: Bet Torah Sisterhood, Bedford Hills Program, 60 Smith Avenue, Mt. Kisco, New York 10549.