How does someone hold a Passover seder when they’re not allowed to bring food into the building?
This was just one of the challenges that Abby Glassberg, chair of Beth Shalom Congregation’s social action committee, was confronted with while running the Jewish Women’s Prison Project, which has spent years reaching out to Jewish women incarcerated in a local correctional facility.
“The Jewish Women’s Prison Project is a study group that takes place in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, the maximum security prison for women in Jessup, Md.,” said Glassberg, a resident of Clarksville. “The group is comprised of currently incarcerated women and community members from Beth Shalom [Congregation] in Columbia, Md.”
Glassberg helped to set up the program after a synagogue member suggested in 2017 that the committee start doing outreach to incarcerated Jewish women and address their needs through a Jewish lens, she said. At first, the project involved visiting the incarcerated women in person, but when the pandemic arrived, Glassberg switched to writing letters.
On what drew her to the idea, Glassberg noted that Beth Shalom is relatively close to the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, and added that “as Jewish women, we feel an affinity for other Jewish women.”
The incarcerated women participating in the project include a core group of six individuals, Glassberg said, with another four participating at times. As many as 15 women at the prison identify as Jewish, she said.
Glassberg declined to give the names of any of the incarcerated women, or to discuss what they had been accused or convicted of. She did, however, note that they are held in a maximum security facility. She added that some of them have a good handle on the Hebrew language, while others don’t. And they want to have kosher food, though they don’t always receive it.
The program’s curriculum includes discussions and text studies based on the Torah and the Talmud, Glassberg said. Some of the things that the incarcerated women have been interested in discussing have been “heaven and hell, from the Jewish perspective,” as well as issues of forgiveness, particularly around Yom Kippur. Discussions also touch on more contemporary issues such as domestic violence, the Me Too movement and food justice.
“Each part of the curriculum is designed to encourage everyone to engage and to think critically,” Glassberg said. “We decided to include current events because we want to enforce the notion that the women who are currently incarcerated are still valued members of the community, the Jewish community, the American community and the global community.”
Glassberg recalled one instance where she worked to set up a Passover seder for the incarcerated women. While they were not permitted to bring food into the prison for the seder, they were able to read prayers, sing songs and participate in discussions.
One of the more curious things about the seder, Glassberg noted, was the inherent irony of a group of incarcerated women expressing gratitude for being out of bondage.
“We were having a discussion about being in bondage and what are you free from,” Glassberg said. “At that time, they saw, on TV, armed, mass murders, they saw car accidents, they saw the pressures people feel, like what you have to wear, different clothes, right? The pressures to conform, how to look, and they felt they were free from all that. And at the time, a woman who’s not helping us anymore, she was like, ‘Well, I’m free, but I have three children under 5, so my bondage is, like I don’t think I’ll ever get out.’”
One former participant who was paroled is currently working for the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit, Glassberg said.
Glassberg described the prison itself as “a scary place, right? … You can’t bring any food, you get searched to go in, and then you have to go through a lot of doors.
“It’s scary when you hear the doors close behind you,” Glassberg added.
Currently, there are two to three Beth Shalom congregants participating in the project, including Glassberg and Becky Lessey, who has long been involved.
“It sounds like it’s nothing, but it really is a big program,” Glassberg said. “I mean, I think we’ve really made a difference.”