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Blog: Purim At Riker’s Island

By , New York

Rabbi Yossel Tevel, a member of the Lubavitch community, known and loved for a lifetime of charitable activities, passed away in January at age 55. He is remembered here as Chabad rabbis perpetuate his long tradition of bringing the Purim spirit to Jewish prisoners on Riker’s Island.

( The time is 8:30 AM, Purim morning, in Crown Heights. Most people in the neighborhood are just getting up to hear the megillah and daven shacharis [pray morning services]. On the street corner of Empire and Albany, a group of Lubavitchers are getting ready to set out on a Purim day mission: a visit to the Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

This Purim ritual has been going on every Purim for the past 20 years. Founded by Rabbi Yossel Tevel OBM, and Rabbi Michoel Chazan, under the auspices of Lubavitch Youth Organization, it has become a hallmark outreach project for many bochurim [rabbinical students] and young men of Crown Heights.

This Purim adventure has many legs to its journey. The first stop for all is the security checkpoint just outside of Rikers Island. Photo identifications are reviewed and clearance is given to proceed forward. The vehicles travel through an additional few checkpoints until they reach their destination. It’s now time to unload the cars packed with music equipment and delicious food and get ready to create the scene of the year at the facility.

Executive Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Leibowitz greets the group at the prison’s entrance. The scene is a familiar one, the energy is tangible, but the presence of Rabbi Yossel Tevel is sorely missed and ever so apparent. Yet, Yossel’s kids, along with the bochurim and yungerleit are determined to make this year’s Simchas Purim at Rikers no different than any other.

They continue their trek through the endless corridor of locked doors. One Prison door is opened, clearance is given, and then the group may proceed to the next room. As the group approaches the large gymnasium, you could hear R’ Mendel Tevel voice echoing through the air. “Let’s go in with a shturem… with a bang!

Inside the room, awaiting the bochurim, are approximately 20 tables of almost 100 inmates. Almost all of them are Jewish. They are wearing orange, grey or brown jumpsuits, and waiting anxiously for the Rabbis to show up.

Suddenly they burst in: “Happy Purim!” they shout. “Mi-she Mi-she Mi-she . . . nichnas Adar . . .” Song breaks out around the room. Bochrim rush over and grab inmates and pull them up to start dancing. It has caught these depressed souls by surprise. Many of them don’t even know how to respond. Dancing? Here? Now? Many have a hard time getting out of their seat. Bochurim grab them one by one until they have as many as possible on the dance floor.

The inmates are ecstatic. To be able to dance with a band in prison is unheard of! The bochurim dance with every bit of strength they have, making sure to look out for the inmates who look a little more depressed and who may need the extra energy. Five bochurim rush over to an Israeli with a long white beard who is sitting and crying, pick up his chair and march him through the room as if it was his Bar Mitzvah day.

Another prisoner is put on the shoulders of a bochur and paraded through the room making him feel on top of the world. For these inmates, this spirit is a power boost for an entire year. The scene in the room is alive. Music is blaring. The place is as alive as could be.

Next, bochurim use the opportunity to put on tefillin and read the megillah. As the megillah reading concludes, the festivities continue as five large yellow chickens come barging in dancing and distributing Purim delicacies to all. If you were an outsider and didn’t know this is a prison one may have easily mistaken the scene in the room for a small wedding or a Bar mitzvah celebration!

It was a sight to behold! A Purim to remember! A lesson that Simcha, true joy, can penetrate even a place as dark as Rikers Island.


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