By Bassy Frankforter, volunteer of the Aleph Institute
It was trepidation and an overwhelming fear of the unknown that accompanied me on my visit to Danbury Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut.
I was entering uncharted territory, a place that has most typically been visited by men; I was walking into a prison to share some Chanukah joy and light. We were warned of the strict rules regarding clothing and were told not to wear green and khaki, the colors of the prison garb all inmates had to wear.
We had to quickly change outfits before we began the drive up to Danbury, scrupulously steering away from these colors. Throughout these preparations, the thoughts and worries ran through my mind, endlessly taunting me with numerous doubts and reservations. What do I say? What do I do? Am I really qualified to bring light to a prison, a place seemingly so destitute and devoid of any spark? What does it mean to bring light, to illuminate a place of total darkness?
We think of light as a given, as a right we are entitled to. We tend to take it for granted until it’s not there, until we are thrown suddenly into a cold and enveloping darkness. We tend to take light for granted, yet it’s the darkness we fear. It’s darkness that causes us to stumble, to fall into a pit of uncertainty and doubt. It’s darkness that tests us, that forces us to draw on our innate light and the strength we receive from God. And it’s this darkness we illuminate with the Chanukah candles; it’s the light of the Menorah, and all that it represents, that we hoped to fill the prison with.
When we think of prisons we think of orange jumpsuits and barbed wire, of strict rules, high security, and a complete lack of freedom. However, we neglect to truly see the small shafts of light that shine through, the flickering flames that continue to burn brightly. My visit to the prison allowed me to see these embers, to truly reflect on the tremendous strength and pride existing in these dark confines.
The women who were sitting around the table with me were women filled with Jewish pride and a strong Jewish identity. They were eager to hear words of Torah, to light the Menorah and share their thoughts on the meaning of light. They were eager to share these experiences with fellow women, with young women, volunteers from the Aleph Institute, who drove up from Brooklyn just to see them.
When these women heard we volunteer with Aleph they were quick to thank us, to thank Aleph, for the support they receive, and they hoped for more opportunities to learn Torah. They viewed their surroundings as a temporary situation, a place which, although often depressing, can be filled with light and laughter and life. They shared with us how they bring light into such a place by lighting Shabbat candles each week, fasting on Yom Kippur, and keeping Pesach as best they could. They shared with us their experiences, both the ups and the downs. They told us of the often conflicting Friday night schedule and how during the winter, when Shabbat comes in early, they have to choose between lighting candles and joining the services or making it to the cafeteria in time for dinner. They shared with us their stories from home and spoke of their mothers and their children. They shared with us their plans following their release and their excitement to return home and resume their lives. One woman lives in Brooklyn, and she was excited with the possibility of meeting us in the streets of the city once she returns. And when we left we didn’t leave empty-handed, we were armed with the meaningful and heartfelt blessings of the women we met.
The strength they find within themselves is an incredible lesson that can be found in the candles of the Menorah, and it is a lesson that has stayed with me long after I left the prison walls. With each night of Chanukah we increase in light, and these women were doing what they could to increase the light within themselves and the prison. The embers were burning strongly, small flames not easily snuffed, flickering candles which continue to share and to increase as we spread the light we find in Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.