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A Prison Seder
A member of the Detroit Jewish com-
munity who is well known for conduct-
ing services for pockets of Jews who
otherwise may not enjoy the opportu-
nity to pray together, but who wishes
to work discreetly without accolades
— one of the highest forms of chesed
(kindness) — shared an account of his
visit to a Michigan prison to conduct a
He visited Coldwater, a city in
southwest Michigan and home to the
Lakeland Correctional and Crane
Correctional prison facilities. On April
13, he visited the Crane facility to con-
duct a seder for 20 prisoners, not all
Jewish. He wrote:
COME IN NOW AND
ADD NEW LIFE TO YOUR
DUSTLESS SAND AND
SCREEN AND COAT.
SUPPORT YOUR LOC
FAMILY OWNED AND OPERATED SINCE 1971
KEEGO HARBOR, MICHIGAN 48320
HOURS: M-F 8 AM - 6 PM, SAT. 9 AM - 5 PM
May 21 • 2009
"I know two local rabbis who have
put on seders at Coldwater and both
assured me that there would be noth-
ing to worry about. But I was told by
the prison chaplain that I would be
given a belt-held pager; and if I ever
felt threatened, all I would have to do
is push the button and there would
be 10 guards at my side, rifles poised
within a minute or two. Somehow, this
bit of knowledge did not comfort me.
What could go wrong that I would
have to push the button?
"Well, nothing went wrong.
"Joseph Gikatilla, famed and learned
Spanish kabbalist (born 1248, Old
Castilla, Spain) states in his She'are
Orah ` ... since the Torah was the great-
est gift that God could give to the
Jewish people, the years of Egyptian
bondage must be viewed as a necessary
step in order to be worth receiving it.
"The problem, as I viewed it, was
how, without embarrassing the prison-
ers, would I be able to bring this point
to the table? What great reward await-
ed those who already had received
their notices that they would soon
be leaving as was the case of all the
prisoner attendees at the seder table?
Some had served as little as two years
and one had served over 30 years.
"The prison facilities offer a kosher
food section in the food commissary;
a mashgiach visits from either Jackson
or Grand Rapids weekly. Think about
this, my dear readers. You do the
crime, but somehow you enjoy the
time. Time off from normal prison
duties and chores to celebrate our
many holidays throughout the year.
Hmmm? No treif. Chicken on Fridays.
Challah and grape juice."
[As a side note, the writer noticed
that the chaplain had boxes stacked
upon one another listing different
religions: Catholic, Protestant, Baptist,
Southern Baptist, Lutheran (different
synods), Native American and, per-
haps the most intriguing, Wiccan (a
neo-pagan nature-based religion). And
there were others.]
"Yes, indeed, the chaplain is a busy
and most knowledgeable person.
This is the American law: freedom of
religion. You do not lose this privilege,
even in prison."
"The Coldwater complex has three
facilities with approximately 3,100
inmates. There is one chaplain for the
three units. Crane has 1,000 prisoners.
"I was more than surprised when
our seder started. Many of the prison-
ers spoke some Hebrew and most were
more than familiar with the Haggadah.
I was somewhat taken aback when a
black inmate asked me if I could send
some chumashim to the prison.
"I brought up 20 weekday siddurim,
which I was very enthusiastically
thanked for. But when they asked for a
chumash because they had only one or
two in the library I was, as I said, very
much surprised. Every one took turns
reading in English except for the Four
Questions, which were read in English
and in Hebrew by a few.
"About half joined in as sang
`Dayenu' I didn't have to ask them if
they had any questions. We ran short
on time because of the fact that they
asked so many questions.
"Somehow, my worry about the
question of freedom never came up
— and perhaps it was that I took it
upon myself to talk about the fact that
freedom sometimes comes after nec-
essary enslavement, deserved or not as