By Edwin E. Chavez and Juan Haines
This year’s Passover celebration at San Quentin affirmed Devin Ben’s belief that the dream of inclusivity for all people is realizable in any environment. He called the openness of San Quentin’s incarcerated residents to the Jewish tradition “inspirational.” He had not seen such openness in other prisons.
“My inspiration comes from extremely welcoming people who have been inclusive,” Ben said referring to conversations with residents that he called “stories of transformation and inspiration.
“For me the idea of freedom from slavery takes on a new meaning for incarcerated folks and how they reconcile that idea within themselves,” he added.
Catherine Metzger also noted the “openness and friendliness” of San Quentin residents.
“I couldn’t imagine the atmosphere … it feels open and relaxed,” Metzger said. “I know that from the outside, people think that when someone goes to visit a prison for a Seder it is to give to a prisoner when the prisoner is the one who is giving,” she added.
Until this celebration restored the tradition, COVID-19 restrictions had prevented Seders at San Quentin.
The Passover Seder, which included staples like matzoh, haroset and horseradish, took place in the prison’s Catholic Chapel, where scenes from Christian scriptures lined the walls. In the front of the room were Old Testament scenes of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and the Red Sea parting, depicted in paintings by San Quentin resident Ben Chandler.
About 70 incarcerated residents and 14 outside guests gathered to hear Rabbi Paul Shleffar tell the Passover story.
“All of us should take a lesson to find ways to serve — to give and acknowledge what’s in the way and find freedom from what’s blocking us from reaching our potential. It’s a different answer for each of us,” said Shleffar, a San Quentin Chaplain since 2015.
They ate a holiday meal consisting of a chicken breast, salad, vegetables and mashed potatoes from Oakland Kosher. Those on Death Row received the meals as well.
A group of incarcerated musicians led by San Quentin resident John Zeretzke provided music for the event.
Before the meal, Shleffar asked 10 attendees to describe something that happened to them in their life that they had thought of as negative, and then to describe the blessing they received because of it.
One shared about thinking that he had lost his family by coming to prison; but they stuck by him the entire time.
One outside guest talked about losing her father, only to learn how people showed up in her life in that time of need.
A struggling artist talked about how a dying student showed her the true path of life.
Another resident talked about his daughter’s placement in foster care; but since his incarceration, father and daughter have connected and reunited.
San Quentin Warden (A) Oak Smith was present at the celebration. “I am a Messianic Jew. I bar mitzvahed at the Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland,” he said. “So Passover brings a lot of family member memories.”
The warden talked about his 25-year experience with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Smith came to San Quentin in 2015. Before that, he had never seen a lifer paroled. Yet part of his new job was to sign release papers for lifers. Confused by this apparent contradiction, he called a colleague at another prison to confirm his understanding of his new duties.
“You guys put the work in. You guys get the dates and you get to go out. It’s an honor to be a part of that,” Smith said. “It’s been a blessing to be able to a part of a place where we can offer opportunities and see the population take advantage of the opportunities to improve themselves and get out of prison.”