Purim In Rikers Island
Last year on Purim morning at 8:30 a.m. in front of Kosher Town, a supermarket in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a group of yeshiva students packed into two mini-vans and a car, along with food in abundance, and the Yossi Cohen band. They headed out to one of the largest jails in New York.
Rikers Island holds 14,000 inmates. In 1975, when Lubavitcher Chasidim first began going to jails to visit inmates, there were seven Jews in Rikers Island. Unfortunately, last year on Purim there were over 150 inmates.
With the help of the Chabad volunteers, the inmates – and some of their family members who were visiting – were able to perform all four mitzvot of Purim: hearing the Megilla, eating a Purim meal, giving charity and sharing Mishloach Manot (gifts of food to friends).
The climax of the visit was the printing of an edition of Tanya (the basic book of Chabad Chasidic philosophy) on Rikers Island in loving memory of Rabbi Yossel Tevel, a’h, who started the project of visiting prisons in 1975.
A Jewish inmate at Rikers Island describes his Purim in jail:
Dear Chabad Volunteers,
I never imagined I’d spend a Purim in jail. Purim was always a family time for me. A time to take my kids around to give out Mishloach Manot, hear the Megilla and enjoy the festivities of the holiday. Not a time to spend in a prison cell in Rikers Island!
As Purim was approaching, I was preparing for the worst Purim of my life. Boy was I in for a surprise! I had no idea that Chabad was coming to Rikers.
On Purim morning, I sat in the gymnasium at OBCC with my fellow inmates, waiting for the Jewish service to begin.
Suddenly, a chorus of voices, joyous laughter, singing and clapping could be heard in the hallway. In you guys stormed, all dressed in Purim costume, bursting with spirit, filled with energy and ready to brighten our day.
I watched in awe as the band set up, the food was unpacked and each of us was greeted with a smile and a huge hug. I couldn’t believe this was all taking place before my eyes in Rikers Island.
It felt really great to put on Tefillin and pray and, of course, to join the dancing circle with my fellow inmates and newfound friends. For just a few short minutes I was able to forget the harsh reality of my life. We danced and clapped, watched the rabbi balance a chair on his nose and got lifted into the air on the rabbi’s shoulders. Yossi Cohen, I must tell you, your music was incredible. Such heart!
When the music stopped, we gathered round to hear the Megilla. I booed every time Haman’s name was mentioned; the same way I booed back at home. It was a Megilla reading to remember. We also exchanged Mishloach Manot and even gave Matanot L’evyonim (gifts of charity to the poor). To be able to do all four mitzvot of Purim – in Rikers – sure was a treat.
Next the food was served; pita, hummus, chips, soda, wafers, hamentashen – a real Purim party. It was followed by Rabbi Yitzchok Hurwitz playing Chabad melodies on the violin. I was touched to tears. With that inspiration, we all stood up, placed our hands on each other’s shoulders to sing Ani Maamin (I Believe). It penetrated not just deep within each of us, but literally transformed Rikers. We continued dancing for half an hour. Yossi, it literally felt like a wedding.
I sang. I laughed. I danced. I ate. I spent time with friends. For a few short hours I forgot where I was. For those few short hours, it was Purim – and that was all that mattered.
The words from the Megilla regarding Haman’s evil decree, “V’nahafoch Hu” (And it was overturned), took on a whole new meaning for me. I now know that even in such dark, dreary places like Rikers, things can be turned upside down, and the joy of the holiday can still be felt.
What you did next really shocked me!
I don’t know how you managed to pull it off, with all the rules and regulations of the jail, but you did it! You guys brought a printing machine along to the prison facility and for the first time ever printed a batch of 100 Tanyas – in loving memory of Rabbi Yossi Tevel, a’h – who started the work at this facility, along with many others, over 30 years ago. I can’t believe these are the only Tanyas ever to be printed in Rikers Island. If you can, I’d love if you save me a copy.
I can go on and on, but I think I’ll finish here. I just want to thank the Lubavitcher Rebbe for sending his emissaries to uplift us in our darkest time and to the anonymous sponsors who made this event possible. A special thank you to the Tevel brothers, the Lubavitch Youth Organization, and all of the volunteers who took of their time to come spend Purim with me. You have no idea what an impact you have made on my life. I speak for myself, but I am sure all the other inmates agree. Thanks for being here for me during this most trying time. I am forever grateful to you.
March 2, 2012 – 8 Adar, 5772