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“This was a night indeed different from all other nights,” said Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action executive director Cindy Rowe. And participants in the Zoom chat agreed, using phrases such as, “the most powerful seder I have ever been at,” “the most relevant seder” and “a beautiful evening to celebrate our common humanity.”
On Thursday, April 7, JALSA hosted its first “Liberation Seder: Breaking the Bonds of Incarceration,” a virtual Passover seder in recognition of William Allen’s fight for freedom, with a larger discussion about Jewish values. The virtual event was attended by over 100 people.
“We put together an event following the format of a seder, with several rabbis and formerly incarcerated people, and also spoke about current advocacy steps we can take on criminal justice reform,” said Rowe. “It was an incredibly meaningful night.”
Allen, a Brockton native who was convicted in 1997 on a felony murder charge, has been serving life without parole (the actual killer has been released for over a decade).
On Jan. 12, after intense advocacy pressure, Gov. Baker commuted the first-degree murder sentences of Thomas Koonce and William Allen to second-degree murder, making both immediately eligible for parole. Allen is now waiting for the parole board to rule on his release from prison.
Volunteers from Second Chance Justice, a branch of the Brockton Interfaith Community, teamed up with JALSA to offer a seder in recognition of Allen’s fight for freedom, as well as the large need for criminal justice reform.
Attendees heard directly from affected voices in the community, including formerly incarcerated returning citizens and survivors of solitary confinement and their loved ones, as well as from Allen’s attorney, Kristine McDonald, of the Brockton branch of law firm Tufankjian, McDonald, Doton & Sacchitella.
Participating clergy members included Rabbi Dena Glasgow, a teacher at Gann Academy; Rabbi David Jaffe, founder of the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project; Rabbi Randy Kafka of Kol Tikvah in Sharon; Rabbi Leora Kling-Perkins of Temple Emunah in Lexington; and Rabbi Mike Rothbaum of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton.
“The evening also featured a discussion of legislation and action steps to help address reforms desperately needed within our criminal justice system,” said Rowe.
Rowe explained that the seder creatively matched ritual moments with calls for legislation. Salt water was used to symbolize tears that are shed due to the high price of calls made from prisons to families. The plagues were a platform to discuss the “plague” of solitary confinement and its impacts. The bitterness of life without parole was symbolized by maror, and Allen’s commutation was celebrated with Hallel, a psalm of praise and thanksgiving sung at the Passover seder.
Over six years ago, JALSA member Joyce Krensky became involved with the organization’s criminal justice efforts. A year ago, she began working with Second Chance Justice to bring the Jewish community together around Allen’s case.
“During the course of the campaign, Krensky told Allen that her greatest hope was that he would be free and able to come to her Passover seder, and celebrate his liberation with her,” said Rowe. “Even though he isn’t free yet, she raised the idea of a seder with Allen to JALSA, and we quickly said, ‘Why wait?'”
After deciding to have the Liberation Seder now, in anticipation of Allen’s release, a team of JALSA staff and members from varied synagogues that had been working with Second Chance Justice joined in.
“This Zoom seder was a powerful moment for the Jewish community and our interfaith allies to gather with Second Chance Justice, Brockton Interfaith Community and Massachusetts Communities Action Network leaders to celebrate, and ultimately support, more efforts to improve our state’s criminal justice system,” said Rowe.