Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt. It is often referred to as the “festival of freedom.” My Passover in prison was at a place called the Wallkill Correctional Facility, 75 miles north of New York City. As the holiday approached, I worried about my family, and how my circumstance was hurting them. I was prosecuted for tax evasion, which I admit to, and for additional crimes where I maintain my innocence. Yes, I felt that I was wrongly accused of stealing millions of dollars from the nonprofit that I ran, but there I was sitting in prison, stewing in guilt, self-pity and pain.
Being behind bars at any time is already a terrible experience. Add in a holiday that highlights the end of bondage, then the ordeal becomes ironic and sad. I didn’t know how Passover would play out. I’ve been religious my entire life, and even in prison I remained a devout Jew. I never took off my yarmulke while incarcerated. A corrections officer once called me a “Jewish nigger” for refusing to remove my skull-cap.
Religious seders (which means “order” in Hebrew) are not prison-friendly. They involve food and drinks that are inaccessible to inmates. Things like four cups of grape juice per person, and stacks of unleavened bread called matzoh. I was anxious imagining how the administration would react to me wanting to celebrate Passover. I went to our rabbinical chaplain and asked for help.
On the outside, observant Jews have two seders, and I didn’t want to break Jewish law despite being imprisoned. A seder involves a meal and a long re-telling of how God helped the Hebrews escape slavery in Egypt. Inmates, as I learned, have a unique connection to the Exodus story.
The rabbi explained that we should prepare for a large group of seder-goers, and that any inmate who identified as Jewish would be invited. The news surprised me. I never thought that prison officials would allow me to have a seder. Now, there was an open invitation.
Passover for an observant Jew is a time to clean out the fridge, change the pots, dishes and silverware and buy only Kosher for Passover products. There can be no bread or other wheat products near the holiday food—one reason we held our seder in the prison synagogue.
The sign-in sheet slowly began to fill up. Our rabbinical chaplain worked hard to make sure the seders were not only kosher but met my strict religious standards. He partnered with a volunteer rabbi from Monroe, New York, who helped bring in extra Passover food and more than one kind of grape juice. The grape juice was very important. Seders involve blessings over four cups of grape juice, or wine for those on the outside. I hoped prison officials didn’t see the need for so much juice as a privilege. Thankfully, they allowed it. We got our special hand-crafted matzoh, too.
Despite the success, I was overcome with gloom. This was my first Passover without my family. My wife, children and grandchildren would be sitting down to seders without me, and there was no way to invite them to what I was planning. I didn’t want to expose the grandchildren to this horrible place called prison and certainly didn’t want them to remember me behind bars.
With the other two synagogue regulars, Steve and Rich, I focused on putting together the most detailed Passover program that Wallkill ever had, and my sadness began to fade. Word starting getting out. While running in the gym or lifting weights in the yard, I was approached by people I had never met, asking to join our Passover group.
A few days later, I stood at the head of the long table in the prison-synagogue and helped lead a seder of 30 inmates. They got into it in a way that I never dreamed would happen. Most really enjoyed it, almost as if we were not in lock-up for those couple of hours. While one of the corrections officers said: “‘What is this? A Jew convention?”, the other officers were respectful. It felt as though all the bad stuff that had been happening had brought me here, to this very moment, to bring a sliver of positivity to a New York prison.
William Rapfogel, 64, spent 33 months in several correctional facilities across New York State after being convicted for grand larceny, money laundering and criminal tax fraud.