It is Sunday afternoon. Most people are revving up for Super Bowl parties. We drive along the quiet highway and park in the visitor’s parking lot. As rabbinical students we have chosen to intern here at BHCF – Bedford Hills Correctional Facility – a maximum security women’s prison.
We have brought art supplies and printouts for a Tu B’Shvat Seder. We hand them over to the Jewish chaplain as we may bring in only ourselves and perhaps some tissues or a candy bar. The usual feeling of apprehension comes over me as we enter the building and make our way to the security check-in. Sometimes the process goes smoothly and sometimes it does not. The guard makes a fuss over the bottles of grape juice – red and white – that the chaplain is carrying. She is nervous as we cannot be late; if we are not there on time, the women will be sent back to their cells. There are no second chances.
Finally, he allows us to pass through the security check. This time our picture ID’s are not waiting for us. Perhaps this is because our fingerprints were rejected; we repeated the inking process but have yet to receive approval. We are waved through; we show our marked hand to the officer on duty and go through two sets of double locked doors. I am reminded of the lions in the Safari zoo in Israel. There, too, you drive through two sets of locked doors so that the lions will not escape.
We wait for the door behind us to clang shut and for the door in front of us to buzz open. Barbed wire and metal gates surround us. A pervasive feeling of grayness is our companion as we walk up to the main building to sign in, show our hand again, and receive a visitor’s pass. We hurry behind the chaplain, passing through more gray and peeling walls and exit the building.
We enter the next building and sign in again. It is Sunday; the hallways are quiet. The rabbi unlocks her office; it is stifling and we throw open the tiny windows to let in some fresh air.
Inside the rabbi’s office there is light, warmth and color. There are lovely painting of trees that an inmate has drawn and hung up in anticipation of Tu B’shvat.
We create a welcoming space; setting the table with nuts, fruits and grape juice. The inmates start arriving – yet they are hesitant to join us around the table. Slowly they come closer and we fill the empty spaces. I lead a meditation which connects us to the air and trees around us. We open our eyes feeling the air between us relax and expand. This is why we are here, to remind the women inside that they are not forgotten.
A woman walks in with a ‘deer in the headlights look,’ no smile. The chaplain explains that she has just arrived at the prison. There are knowing and even pitying looks among the veteran inmates. She leaves after a few minutes.
We move through the Seder, pouring red and white grape juice; bringing different nuts, berries and fruits to the table. The women are relishing the tastes and the colors of the berries. They fill their platters high and save some for later. My colleague and I have a mildly heated argument about whether to repeat the blessings over the grape juice and fruits for each of the four parts of the Seder. The women look on and smile – not really following the laws that we quote but enjoying the exchange. I concede; we all repeat the blessings together. A feeling of camaraderie builds in the room.
We have reached that part in the Seder when we eat fruits and nuts that have a shell or a peel: hard on the outside and edible/soft on the inside.
Inmate A : (smiling) This is me; I came to prison with a very hard shell. Over time the shell has cracked open and I found a softness inside me.
Inmate B : (edgy) I don’t feel that way at all. I came to prison soft but I needed to develop a hard shell. Otherwise I would not survive here!
Inmate C: (softer) Yes, I agree. We need to develop a hard shell or we cannot survive.
Me: What do you mean?
Inmate C: (sadly) I mean that I would get taken advantage of. Other inmates would see me as soft and I would not survive. (She doesn’t elaborate).
Inmate A: (nodding) This teaches me that I shouldn’t judge someone by their exterior. Perhaps the hard shell that I see is hiding something much softer inside.
The room grows quiet. We raise our next glass and talk about trees, about rebirth and about growth. The last half hour is spent on an art project: Torn Paper Midrash. My colleague has brought colored tissue paper, pictures of empty trees and crayons with glitter. The chaplain produces glue. As we sit around the table tearing colored tissue paper and gluing it onto the trees there is some quiet chatter. We hear about parole boards coming up together with the fears and anxieties surrounding them. One woman is looking forward to receiving a fresh mango from a close friend. Another inmate tells her that soon they will not allow fresh fruit because it is too much trouble to check it. There are sighs of resignation; they know that there is nothing they can do to stop this.
We clean up together and hang the pictures. The wall looks festive and cheerful but a tension has crept into the room. It is 5:00 PM. The guard comes by to call them to their next “line movement”. The women leave one by one, thanking us warmly for coming to spend time with them. We lock the door and follow the chaplain, retracing our steps through the buildings, showing our hands, signing out, going through the two sets of double locked doors until we arrive at our car. We retrieve our phones and connect back to the outside world. The women remain inside.