A Rikers Island Purim story: Finding God behind the gates
As a rookie officer on Rikers Island in the 1990s, I experienced quite a bit of antisemitism. I had graduated from the academy at the top of my class, which normally is the path to a cushy assignment. But few seemed to believe that a Black woman could also be an Orthodox Jew, and I was repeatedly denied shift accommodations to observe Shabbat.
At the time, the only other Jewish officers on the force were white, and none were Torah observant. They openly ate non-kosher food in the mess hall, worked on Jewish holidays, and were for the most part critical of my Orthodox practice. My commanding officers told me if other Jews could work, I could too. I felt very much alone.
As Purim approached, I was assigned to the 3-11 shift, meaning I would be unable to hear the Megillah on Purim night. A captain suggested that the Jewish chaplain might be able to help. I took her advice and nervously knocked on his door, expecting the worst.
Instead, I was greeted warmly by Rabbi Herbert Bomzer (z”l), an old family friend. “Akedah, what are you doing here?” he asked. I explained I had just graduated from the academy and was scheduled to work on Purim. He offered to help, asking me first if I felt comfortable doing inmate escorts; high-security encounters in which they are shackled and manacled to be led to different locations.
The place where they would be heading was a Purim observance in a special holding area for events organized by community volunteers for the incarcerated Jews and their families. If I worked the event, which included the shackling, I could hear the Megillah reading along with them on Purim night. I happily agreed, and my immediate responsibility was to sign up Jewish inmates for the program.
For two solid weeks, I ran around to each housing unit, sifting through inmate ID cards for anyone who identified as Jewish, including those with Jewish-sounding last names or who had signed up for a kosher meal plan. I ended up with over 100 names and reported back to Rabbi Bomzer. I recall the old man laughing while reviewing the names on my list: “Friedman… OK. “Jackson?” His brow furrowed. “Chapman… I suppose. Jones? Guttierez?”Yet who were we to judge? He shook his head and smiled. “Such a Chabadnik! Where did you find all of these people? I usually have only a few.”
I explained that most had signed up out of curiosity and described the incredulous looks I received from officers and inmates alike when asking for their Hebrew names. When they asked if I too was Jewish, I answered that they could find out if they participated.
The night of the Megillah reading arrived, and another Jewish officer and I began the lengthy process of picking up the inmates from their housing areas. As the line grew in the hallway, I became a little nervous. Would they all behave appropriately? I was a rookie; what if something went wrong?
I recited a silent prayer and led the men forward. Every Jew had an obligation to hear the Megillah reading that night. Fulfilling that mitzvah made me feel optimistic.
We began fitting each inmate into his leg irons and cuffs for transport. I hid silent tears as each donned a bright orange or green jumpsuit, depending upon their classification, aware that most of those held on Rikers were not convicted felons, but people accused of crimes who could not post bail or were still awaiting trial. Their dehumanization was difficult to witness.
Once they all were on the bus and a headcount had been taken, I sat quietly for a minute, thankful we had made it this far without a hitch. My phone in my back pocket buzzed with a text message from my mom (of blessed memory), asking about my Purim plans. I typed, “I will be hearing Megillah in prison this year, Eamah.” She called back immediately, and after I explained, asked that I put her on speaker. She wished the men “Purim Sameach” and asked that Hashem bless us all with abundant joy that night, ending the call by singing “Shoshanat Yaakov” with me. The inmates were amazed.
When we arrived at the event space, the family members were already seated. Rabbi Yossi Tevel (z”l), a regular volunteer at the jail, had organized an elaborate meal and brought a band. Each person was handed a Megillah booklet. The blessings were recited and the reading and celebration began.
During the reading, there were no officers, inmates or volunteers. We were all enjoying our religious observance.
When it was over and I collected the booklets, Rabbi Tevel asked if he could have a word.
“You seem to know a little more about this than most people, yeh?” I recall him asking.
Never one to avoid an opportunity to kibbitz on Purim, I replied: “Well Rabbi, this is a little difficult for me to admit, but you see this whole Hebrew speaking thing started for me in a dream just a few weeks ago. Crazy as it sounds, I just started speaking Hebrew spontaneously after it and well – hayeetee be helem. See? There it goes again.”
Rabbi Tevel was amazed. I continued: “In my dream there was a saintly-looking man, dressed in a long black coat, with a white beard, a Black fedora style hat. His face was glowing.”
I began to stammer, pretending to read the words I had seen in my dream: “Yechi….Adoneinu…. Morenu … Ve Rabbeinu…”
“That’s incredible!” he replied.
“And there was something else,” I added. “Maybe you could help translate the rest of the words I saw?”
The rabbi answered, “Yes, yes; of course.”
“Al tis… tis…tistakel b’ kan kan, elah be mah she yesh b’tocho,” I stammered. “What does it mean?”
He translated: “Don’t ever look at the exterior; look only at what lies within.”
As he turned to leave, a co-worker approached me, saying, “Hey Fulcher, you left your jacket over there.”
Rabbi Tevel turned back abruptly, and roared with laughter. “Fulcher! I should have known!”
I blinked. “You know my family?”
“Of course! I used to work in bookkeeping with your father. Lady, that was an awesome shpiel you just played on me. You really had me going! ‘Hearing Hebrew in a dream’ – hah!”
We parted as friends, and continued to coordinate Jewish services at Rikers Island over the years. He has since passed on, and although I no longer work in corrections, in his honor I continue to volunteer at women’s prisons throughout the country. Likewise, his children still coordinate religious celebrations on Rikers Island. Years later, I still meet Jewish men and women now released from custody who remember those Purim parties and Rabbi Tevel lovingly.
When asked by new friends and volunteers how my prison outreach started, I tell them – just as I did to the rabbi: “One night, a long time ago, I had a dream…”