How a Jewish Woman in Florida Learned to Be Free in Prison
by Kayla Rosen – chabad.org
On her first day in the South Florida correctional facility in 2022, Sara remembers thinking to herself, “welcome to the jungle.” As a naturally quiet and private person, it was hard for her to adjust to the chaos of jail life. And yet, she says, in a place of such darkness and isolation, she discovered through a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi a deeper light that carried her through imprisonment.
Recently released and looking forward to celebrating Passover, the Season of our Freedom, Sara reflects on her incarceration as a time of growth and resilience, when she was able to find a deeper connection to her Jewish roots.
“I grew up in a traditional Jewish home. I spent my childhood learning in Jewish day schools, and we were part of the Jewish community.” Sara shares with Chabad.org. “I had a solid Jewish background. By the time I entered jail, I wasn’t as observant as I once was, but my Jewish roots ran deep and the connection never left me.”
Early on in her jail sentence, Sara remembers seeing a rabbi walk into the main room. He was wearing a baseball cap, but she could see his tzitzit peeking out from under his jacket as he stood talking to two other young women. Sara asked a nearby guard permission to speak with the rabbi, but she was immediately shushed and shooed away. Thankfully, the rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of program outreach at the Aleph Institute, watched this whole interaction and approached Sara himself.
As Sara sees it, it was as if “G‑d had walked into the very room,” bringing a light to Sara that would be her lifeline throughout the year. She didn’t realize it at first, but Judaism would become her rock while in jail. The holidays and the little Shabbat practices that she managed to keep were what kept her grounded, she says. She looked forward to each and every Torah book or magazine that came her way, and the occasional prayer services and learning sessions that Aleph succeeded in organizing in the facility.
The Aleph Institute, founded in 1981 under the direction of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M Schneerson, of righteous memory—is a Florida-based organization geared towards providing for the spiritual and physical needs of Jewish soldiers and prisoners, and their families, throughout the United States.
A Jewish Lifeline
“Being Jewish is what carried me throughout my time in jail. I wouldn’t have survived without it,” says Sara.
Sara was one of three Jewish women in her facility, and the most knowledgeable about Judaism. Gradually, with the rabbi’s encouragement, she became a kind of mentor to these two young women, leading study sessions and makeshift prayer services. On Friday nights, Sara would find paper cups and draw little flames on them, the closest she and her fellow inmates could get to Shabbat candles.
Sara vividly remembers one conversation she had with Katz, as it continues to be one that sits close to her heart. “He looked at me and said, ‘What brought you here is not the reason you are here. You have an opportunity to inspire these two Jewish women and really be there for them.’ ”
She recalls at that moment, “I knew my mission. I would bring light wherever I could.”
“I taught these women the Shema prayer,” Sara shares, emotion in her voice “and would go over it with them again and again. If they remembered one thing, I wanted it to be the Shema.”
Hearing Shofar in a Prison Sick Bed
Last fall, when Sara contracted Covid, which was surging through the jail, she was moved to a different area of the facility, separated from her two Jewish companions. With Aleph’s help, she was ultimately moved back and able to continue supporting the other women.
Even during the pandemic, while many other services in jail were put on pause and visitations dwindled to almost nothing, the rabbi continued to show up, a light in the lonely darkness. While sick and weak with Covid, and in strict quarantine, Sara remembers waking up to Katz with a shofar in hand, who braved the lockdown to make sure that one Jew could hear the blast before Rosh Hashanah.
There wasn’t one holiday that they didn’t show up for, recalls Sara. Whether it was special kosher food, prayerbooks, or proper reading material and online classes, the Jewish inmates were supported in every way.
A Very Special Passover
But for Sara, on the very holiday that commemorates her nation’s freedom, Passover in jail stands out in her mind.
“We had to beg and plead with the officers to let us make a small Seder in a private room used for visits with attorneys,” she explains. “We hadn’t received any Passover food or resources at that point, so I was prepared to have a makeshift seder of plastic and paper. But just as we were sitting down, a guard came in with a bag filled with everything our Seder would need.”
From handmade shmurah matzah to maror, from fresh gefilte fish to hard-boiled eggs, their Seder plate was not only complete but beautiful as well, as they read through the Haggadah in a small backroom of a Florida jail facility. Sara sat with the other Jewish women, knowing intimately what their forefathers went through, as they themselves had lost their freedom. Yet Sara says she understood that for them, they were not in prison because they were Jewish. On the contrary, their Jewish identity in prison was a freedom she says she will continue to cherish for the rest of her life.
Since her release, Sara continues to study Torah and celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays with family and friends. She even hopes to volunteer for the Aleph Institute one day and give back to the organization that brought her so much strength in a time of such darkness.
As she now continues to care full-time for her aging mother, a Holocaust survivor, Sara reflects on the meaning of freedom with Passover right around the corner.
“Freedom is our ability to choose to live a life that we desire, and thank G‑d, I now have the opportunity to do just that.” This year, Sara will be celebrating her own freedom alongside family and friends in the warmth of her own home.