Seder holds special meaning for prisoners Jewish group brings Passover meal to Md. inmates

April 05, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Thirty years ago in a house somewhere in Baltimore, Lawrence W., a cantor's grandson, learned to ferret out the afikomen, the hidden piece of Passover matzo whose discovery is rewarded with a treat of the child's choosing.

"We used to always steal it," Lawrence, now 41, said of himself and his cousins, just a hint of self-deprecation in his voice. "Maybe that's where I got it."

The others at this Passover table at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup laughed generously. They know Lawrence is doing time for one of the armed robberies that used to feed his drug habit.

Seder, the meal held on the first two nights of the eight-day Passover holiday, was observed Thursday in five of Maryland's prisons. Traditional foods were served but no wine. There was no visit from Elijah, the spirit who drops by for a glass of wine at each Seder. Elijah needs an open door and you just can't have that in prison.

But everything else was there, as it has been since 1916 when the Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League organized to serve Maryland's Jewish inmates. In the week before Passover, which begins tonight, the agency's staff and volunteers took Seder meals with 60 Jewish men and women in a dozen prisons from the Eastern Shore to Hagerstown.

The Jewish prison population in Maryland is larger than it was 77 years ago, but still a demographic blip in a system of almost 20,000 inmates. Most are serving time on drug-related charges, or for crimes committed to feed their addictions.

Despite their small numbers, Jews in Maryland prisons enjoyed certain privileges that are now eroding as prison officials face the impossibility of providing parity to a growing number of religious sects.

Last August, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services stopped offering kosher meals eaten by about 10 strictly observant Jewish prisoners. Instead, the prisoners are served a vegetarian meal, which theoretically meets the religious needs of almost any faith. But the food is no longer prepared under a rabbi's supervision on separate dishes required by Jewish dietary law.

The holiday policy also changed recently. Correction officials have told the volunteers, who once observed five holidays with Jewish prisoners, they will be limited to two, or perhaps only one at some institutions.

If they have to choose only one, said Lou Jacobs, executive director of the Big Brother League, then it will be Passover, which recalls the Jews' flight from Egypt.

While Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiday most Jews would pick as their most sacred day, inmates find special meaning in Passover, Mr. Jacobs said.

"It has a theme of release from bondage, which is important to prisoners," he said.

The guest list at the Jessup Seder included three prisoners -- Lawrence W., Donald Anshel and Peter, the latter two serving life sentences for murder. They were joined by Mr. Jacobs and Hillel Zeitlin, who officiates at the Seders, and two volunteers, David Weiner and Rubin Brodsky.

None of the three inmates was particularly observant on the outside. But they said they found that prison demands that one choose an identity. Judaism provided one.

"In the early '70s, the prison was divided into camps," recalled Peter, 52, who has served 21 years of a sentence of two life terms plus 14 years. "Black against white. Baltimore vs. Washington, D.C. Well, I'm not from here, I didn't have any home boys. This became a niche."

Peter declined to disclose his last name, or talk much about his crimes.

For Anshel, 59, Passover before prison was an empty ritual. "It was like giving respect to your family," he said. "It was something you had to do at a certain time of the year. No different from driving your car to work in the morning.

"It's not a religious awakening for me," he added, now a veteran of 25 prison Seders. "It's more like I learned to respect myself, then I learned to respect others, then the community became a part of me."

And for Lawrence W., who withholds his last name to shield his family, Passover was more about family than religion. He remembers not only the stolen afikomens but music, and his grandfather's horseradish.

Compared to a typical Seder, this one was a little hurried, skipping over large sections of the Haggadah, the traditional text.

But the important rituals remain: the Afikomen; the four questions; the glasses of wine (grape juice); the song "Dayenu" (loosely, "It would have been enough," in Hebrew); recounting the 10 plagues. And, most important to the inmates, the ending, "Next year in Jerusalem." Usually, they change it to, "Next year outside."

Peter said, "Next year," then shrugged. He doesn't come before the Parole Board again until 1995.

Lawrence said, "Next year in federal prison in Virginia." He has to serve time on a parole violation.

But Anshel, ill and up for parole, raised his glass, saying, "Next year in Jerusalem."

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