COVID-19 outbreaks and modified program status have delayed the celebration of Passover Seders at San Quentin State Prison since 2019. On April 15, however, the Jewish community was able to observe Passover.
“It feels almost unreal, so full of life from the past years,” said San Quentin resident Darryl Beulah. “It feels good to reconnect. So much has changed and is part of Judaism.”
Rabbi Paul Shleffar began the service by talking about the importance of Passover, which is to celebrate the freedom from bondage of slavery as God set His people free from the Egyptians.
“If you imagine you know what God wants you to know, you are missing the boat,” said Shleffar.
According to Jewish tradition, Passover allows each individual to identify with ancient ancestors in God’s deliverance from bondage.
“Passover to me is very important. I feel it is one of the most important of the seven holidays of the ‘Moedin’ [Appointed Times]” said D. Ernesto Soltero, “The Jews are commanded to keep all Moedin unto our creator.”
The rabbi reflected on relationships, not only with people, but also with the world.
He encouraged the participants to remember their connection with God — that they should realize being open to relationships is to know God.
“It means grace and having a good time among friends and strangers,’ said Beulah. “It is a time of celebration as we put all the negative stuff to the side.”
The event brought several dozen San Quentin residents together to celebrate liberty, love and, most of all, life itself.
For San Quentin resident Louis Light, Passover is a time for building a stronger connection with God. Light talked about struggling to sleep; during Passover, he “sleeps like a baby.”
Eight round tables were set with eight plates topped with eggs, a sweet fig dish, chocolate and coconut (handmade by the rabbi). There was also a sour dish, setting up the representation of a sour past and a sweet future. Celery and matzo bread decorated the center of each table.
The ceremony involves participants eating celery that has been dipped in saltwater. The saltwater represents tears of suffering. Matzo bread is a symbol of hope.
As the sun set, about a quarter to six, the ceremony began.
A single candle was lit beside a painting of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.
A short prayer began the celebration.
“The whole point of these holidays is to move closer to God,” Rabbi Shleffar said.
The participants filled each other’s cups of grape juice.
“The whole thing is about relationships, not only with people, but with the world
and with food,” the rabbi said. “We have to remember our connection with the divine, with God. It’s all connected. We have to start from the beginning, in Genesis 1. It’s what God wants, not what we want.”
At a table with two bowls of water and fresh flowers, the participants lined up, prayed and washed their hands before the meal.
San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Temple donated the meals for the service. In addition, every year the temple donates the Jewish calendar to the prison.
The organization Urban Adamah, as well as Jamie Tafoya, also made donations to facilitate the service.
The band Lefane Cha (“I am grateful”) performed and played Jewish music.
Mark Kinney, Greg J. Dixon, Raul Aguayo, John E. Zeretzke, Daniel Le, and Ben Chandler made up the band.
With Juan Haines