Throughout the generations, Jews have used the Haggadah as a template for creating new texts and artwork that reflect the issues of the day. This year, I had the honor to work with a group of women, including fellow Philadelphia rabbis Julie Greenberg and Sue Levi Elwell, to create a Haggadah supplement focusing on one of the most pressing issues of our times: mass incarceration.
More than 2 million Americans are incarcerated, a large percentage of whom are locked up for non-violent offenses. Thanks in large part to a 500 percent increase in its prison population since 1980, the United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. This is, in itself, quite disturbing and shocking, particularly considering that it has literally become big business — there are countless examples of for-profit prisons using contracts with state governments to keep their cells filled.
According to a Vera Institute of Justice survey, we spend on average about $42,000 annually to house each inmate in Pennsylvania, all while education and other budgets are being squeezed. In addition, prisons and detention centers are trying to get manufacturers to set up operations within their walls, touting their “reliable” work force, and some are investing significant funds in lobbying for increased sentences.
In my definition, this can be described as “slavery,” and this slavery is being supported by our tax dollars. As Jews and as Americans, we are compelled to ask questions and learn more about these issues, particularly during Passover, the holiday of our own liberation.
What makes this situation even more troubling is that the majority of people locked behind bars are people of color. In the United States, we imprison a larger percentage of our black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid, according to Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. Young black men in cities grow up expecting that the majority of their peers will serve time for non-violent drug offenses.
I have been blessed to be part of an interfaith, interracial, intergenerational study group at Mishkan Shalom, which was launched after a showing of Matt Pillischer’s powerful documentary, Broken on All Sides. The film explores the causes of mass incarceration and how systemic racism impacts criminal justice.
Our study group has also been discussing Alexander’s book. Her premise is that mass incarceration maintains a racial caste system in many ways parallel to slavery before the Civil War and to the restrictive Jim Crow laws, which were instituted after Emancipation in the South.
In Alexander’s words, “Today, a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.”
She maintains that the so-called War on Drugs, which has disproportionately imprisoned people of color, is a backlash to the Civil Rights movement. Given that explicit racism is no longer legal, the discrimination comes in the form of labeling African Americans as “criminals” or “felons,” thus legalizing discrimination in everything from prison time to public housing to employment to voting rights.
Participating in this study group has challenged me to examine my prejudices and assumptions about people of color and criminal justice. For example, during one of our sessions, I came to the realization that I had been taught to fear black men and to fear “criminals.”
Yet, in reality, the majority of black men are very much like me in the sense of wanting to thrive and work hard and to live a moral, loving life. It is vitally important that we examine our own racism and become voices for justice within our criminal justice system.
The Haggadah supplement, “Crying Out Against Mass Incarceration,” can be downloaded at Jewish Currents  or Truah . It includes a new item for the seder plate — a padlock and key — along with an accompanying reading. It also includes important background information in the form of four questions.
We encourage creating a safe space for sharing among all those present at the seder, including those who have experienced racism and those who have personal stories of incarceration. We also offer songs and references for further study.
I invite you all to join me in learning more about these issues and in crying out for justice, in the spirit of the cry of the Israelites to the Eternal One, which was the first step in moving towards liberation. Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Melissa Klein is a writer, healing service leader and spiritual activist living in Philadelphia. For more information on the Mishkan Shalom study group, email [email protected] .