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My Pesach Stint In Federal Prison


Last year I spent part of Pesach in the oddest of places.

I had been in the office of Kesher Israel Congregation of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania late one afternoon before Pesach when the phone rang. It was a chaplain (not Jewish) from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. They had just received some new Jewish prisoners and were scrambling to meet their Pesach needs.

I was happy to help. I referred them to a website featuring a line of kosher for Pesach travel meals. While these meals were obviously intended for families on the go, they could also help our brothers behind bars. The relief I had provided him quickly disappeared when he exclaimed, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about matzah?” I told him of a local supermarket that carried about every type of matzah one could imagine.

I asked him why he was calling Kesher Israel; he said it was the closest Orthodox synagogue to Lewisburg he could find. I then asked if he had a rabbi planning to see the Jewish inmates over Pesach. He told me that while a rabbi visited once a month from Wilkes-Barre, no one was scheduled to stop in during Pesach. He was thrilled when I volunteered to come for a visit. After a lot of paper work, I was all set.

I wanted to make the trip to Lewisburg for two reasons: I was curious and I imagined a bunch of depressed Jewish men feeling miserable about being away from loved ones during Pesach. I figured they would probably appreciate a little support at this time of year.

With my father keeping me company, I headed off for a beautiful hour-long drive to be the guest chaplain at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary (also known as The Big House).

As my father was not allowed to enter, he drove to a nearby park where he read, did some work, and enjoyed delicious Seder leftovers my wife had packed for him.

I was surprised by Lewisburg. I had assumed it would be a Club Fed-type place for white collar criminals. Well, they have a satellite camp that fits that bill, but Lewisburg itself is a maximum security prison/fortress – guard towers and all.

The chaplain met me and we went through several security layers until we were in the chapel. The place was very well kept, and the architecture reminded me of a preppy boarding school – aside from the bars and metal detectors.

The guards at the front desk took my picture and stamped my hand with an ultraviolet symbol. I naively asked what that was for. I was told it was to verify that it was in fact me who would be exiting and not an inmate of my height, weight, and look – an inmate who may have tied me up after stealing my shirt, jacket and tie. Even if he looked like my picture, he wouldn’t be allowed to exit without the ultraviolet hand stamp. I made a mental note not to wash my hands with soap while I was in there.

After spending some time with two Jewish inmates in the chapel of the prison’s maximum security wing, the chaplain and I left to visit the nearby minimum security satellite camp. It felt very good to be on the outside again. (Thank God, the ultraviolet stamp held fast.)

The contrast between the two places was striking. There was a far greater degree of freedom in the camp than in the prison. The inmates all knew, however, that if they stepped out of line, it would be back to lockdown in The Big House.

The camp had given the Jewish group (nearly a dozen men) a small unused cafeteria for Pesach. The counters were covered with aluminum foil, boxes of matzah, Pesach food, and Haggadahs. I was shocked: it looked just like any yeshiva kitchen prepared for Pesach.

As we entered, the prison employee who had escorted me asked the group if he could join us at the table with his lunch. The prisoners asked to inspect his bag first. Sure enough, it contained food that was not kosher for Pesach. The inmates set up a chair in the corner and asked the prison employee to sit there rather than joining us at the table. He politely complied. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

About the Author: Rabbi Akiva Males is rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at rabbimales@yahoo.com.


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