The table was set, Seder plates and all. A bitter herb and haroset, a hardboiled egg and salt water to dip it in. Dutiful participants taking turns reading portions of the Haggadah aloud, telling the story of the Jewish exodus. A typical Passover Seder, except for one critical difference. This Seder took place in a women’s prison.
It was 2016 and Brittany R. had just arrived at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino, CA. Her drug addiction had taken her from her far from her suburban life – one of motherhood, mini-vans and soccer practices – to the harsh world of prison.
That Passover in 2016, Brittany nearly left the Seder in a bout of anxiety. But as she moved toward the door, the band picked up a familiar tune – Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Brittany was struck. She had an intense personal connection to the song, which had comforted her in her most dire times of need. She turned around and resumed her place at the table.
Brittany passed the next months adjusting to prison life and studying with the rabbi. She read everything she could on Judaism and its tenets, including the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great scholar and activitst. At her rabbi’s urging, Brittany prepared and delivered a drosh at CIW’s High Holiday services – based on “Hallelujah.” Women from Beit T’Shuvah’s Alternative Sentencing program joined the inmates at CIW that year; it was Brittany’s first introduction to BTS. Among the speakers was Nanette S., who told her story and of her parole to Beit T’Shuvah. Like many who have heard her speak, Brittany was impressed with Nanette. And based on her drosh, Carrie Newman was impressed with Brittany. Carrie urged Brittany, who had about a year and a half left on her sentence, to apply for parole to BTS.
Brittany had never considered going to treatment upon her release – by then, she hadn’t used drugs in years. But her rabbi brought in a videotape of Freedom Song, which resonated with her on many levels. Brittany cried during the entire thing, including the Q & A session. Coincidentally, Brittany’s loves include theater and writing, and she she knew that she needed to work through her shame. She immediately read The Holy Thief and Sacred Housekeeping, and from that moment, Brittany was sold on Beit T’Shuvah. She began a correspondence with Carrie and with Rachel Ehrman that continued until Brittany’s arrival at BTS.
When Brittany got to Beit T’Shuvah, she discovered that her counselor was the same Nanette she had seen at CIW.
Brittany has flourished here, throwing herself into everything BTS has to offer while deepening her Jewish identity. She has decided to work toward a career in counseling and has taken the first step toward doing so by participating in work therapy as a Program Facilitator intern. And she is now part of Freedom Song, in a role that mirrors her own life. Brittany can’t say enough about Beit T’Shuvah and its role in changing her life. As she puts it, “Beit T’Shuvah is helping me begin a new life – teaching me to be who I am and to figure out who I want to become.”