A Shavuos Experience on Rikers Island

If you thought Shavuos was a Yom Tov with no mivtzoim to do, let me tell you, you’re mistaken. When you spend Erev Shavuos on Rikers Island, the mivtzoim options are still running when the party comes to a stop.

By Esther R.

If you thought Shavuos was a Yom Tov with no mivtzoim to do, let me tell you, you’re mistaken. When you spend Erev Shavuos on Rikers Island, the mivtzoim options are still running when the party comes to a stop.

Arriving with a list of 53 things to accomplish in under 2 hours, we always manage to pull it off with success and grandeur which we know is only because of the Rebbe’s brachos. And this time was no exception.

A huge shout out to Rabbi Zalman Tevel, who once again threw this program out of the park. Under the auspices of Lubavitch Youth Organization (LYO) and Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, this wonderful group always manages to drive the holiday home, in true spirit and enthusiasm.

The program began with Tehillim and straight into a practical understanding of what the Torah is, why we have it, and what it does for us. In other words, the reason why we eat cheesecake. 

Mid-sentence, an inmate, which we’ll call Bob, took his spot, on center stage, and hilariously entertained the crowd, while expounding on the rabbi’s words, that ‘Torah is truly de beste schorah.’ The room was laughing, and at the same time inspired with fresh words to hold onto. To bring his point full circle, Bob asked Yossi Cohen to play his favorite song, encapsulating the Torah thoughts he shared. Bob has a great voice, and he sang straight from his heart. His fellow inmates began to match his frequency level, and the vibe meaningfully increased by a few notches. 

Thank you, Yossi Cohen and Shlomo Recufor bringing everyone to the dance floor. Together with our musical band, we had Shraga Gold from Shira sing and perform, creating a lively and cheerful energy in the room. This winning trio skillfully had everyone involved. It wasn’t just the inmates and volunteers. We had family visitors, officers, the chaplains. Even those sitting were dancing! It was contagious and irresistible. We even had a couple of inmates doing somersaults! 

Next, we distributed to the tables a full line of gourmet Shavuos food, which of course included cheese danishes and cheesecake. The cheesecake hit a home run, and even the officers were delighted to enjoy authentic Jewish Holiday food. One of the inmates picked up a cheese danish, and commented, “These remind me of my hometown. There’s a bakery down the block from me, and they sell pastries that smell just like this! Having this cheese danish makes me feel warm inside!” 

A specialty just for Shavuos – LYO brought down the esteemed sofer, Rabbi Yossi Altein to present a safrus workshop. Engaging and dynamic, the inmates were asking questions and were fascinated by the process. Where to get the parchment from? What kind of animal? At what stage the various steps are taken? How to make the tefillin boxes, and so on. A well-rounded, and informative experience, brought our Jewish brethren, one step closer to receiving the Torah with wholesomeness and purity. 

To wrap up this remarkable event, we had world-renowned mentalist and magician, Shlomo Levinger entertained the crowd with his talent and proficiency. Combine sleight of hand and mind reading together, and you get a room pin-drop silent, mouths wide open, and an extremely impressed crowd. Concluding with a resounding round of applause, we formed one last circle, to sing Ani Ma’amin. 

It’s serious, it’s heartfelt, it’s meaningful. Singing this soul-stirring melody, it always hits home, every time. I turned to the woman standing next to me, and asked her, “Do you know the words to the song?” She shook her head no. “Do you know what this song means?” I asked. With tears in her eyes, she looked up at me, and while nodding her head, she said, “Yes, and it makes me cry.” We wished everyone strength and solace, and we are looking forward to seeing them on the outside!

With that, we started to pack up. There was a yid who hadn’t said Kaddish in many months, so while some of us cleaned up, others quickly did an impromptu minyan of Mincha giving this yid this sacred opportunity. It was truly an exceptional program, and we can’t wait to dance with everyone, outside the confines of all limitations, heading to Eretz Yisroel with Moshiach.

Thank you to the Chaplains of Rikers Island, Rabbis Mendy Hecht, Gavriel Kretzmer-Seed, and Mia Simring for all that you do for the Jews on Rikers Island. Thank you to Rabbi Hollander from L’asurim for your unlimited chesed and participation in these peulos. A special thank you to everyone else involved, and all their efforts invested, in bringing this fantastic event to fruition!

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  1. Lasurim.org and alephne.org exemplify the mitzva of assisting your fellow as you would yourself. Recent matirasurim.org/about-us/
    is a notable role model too.

    You guys unlike the rest and best of us actually care about humans who made mistakes and treat them in a way that perserves their human dignity. Even when wrong. Thank you for the critical work you do.

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