Being Jewish in prison – one woman’s story
British educator Connie Webber told a Limmud audience in Cape Town last weekend the sad story of her friend Yehudit (not her real name) who landed up in a British prison due to a series of unfortunate events.
Webber, who was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit from the Polish government for her work on Polish-Jewish relations in 1998, told how her friend was charged with child abduction for trying to keep her son safe.
Yehudit was born and grew up in Hungary, with little education or career prospects. She knew her grandmother and mother were Jewish, and she wore a Magen David around her neck, but never identified as Jewish until the day a rabbi and an Israeli walked into the bar where she was working in Budapest and changed her life.
The rabbi and businessman noticed her Magen David, and when she told them her family history, they said she was definitely Jewish, and should live in Israel. Though they saw it as saving a Jewish soul, their good intentions had a detrimental effect on Yehudit’s life. “The road to disaster is paved with good intentions,” said Webber.
Yehudit did go to Israel, and was quickly married off to a man she didn’t know well, bearing a daughter soon afterwards. The marriage soon dissolved, and Yehudit took the child with her to the United Kingdom, where she met Webber.
They became friends, but in general, Yehudit was on her own as a young, divorced woman with a child. The British Jewish community didn’t support her, and didn’t see her as a prospect for their sons. So, Yehudit connected with other European Jews, and soon met a non-Jewish man named Joe who swept her off her feet.
In another step towards disaster, Joe’s records were not checked by his employers. If they had done so, they would have discovered that he was a career criminal with many convictions for smuggling heroin. Yehudit also had no idea about his past.
Yehudit married him, and they had a son. The Webbers hosted the brit milah (circumcision ceremony), and the couple named their son Harry Jonathan, after Webber’s husband. But Joe soon turned abusive, and the couple divorced, with Yehudit taking her son with her to Hungary. Her daughter went to live with her father in Israel.
Over email, Webber learned that Joe was litigating against Yehudit for abducting their son, but as an ex-convict, he wouldn’t have a case. Yet, Yehudit was encouraged to return to the UK to “sort it out”. Webber later received an email with the subject line “SOS”. Her friend described how she had been arrested at Heathrow, her 11-year-old son Henry separated from her, and was out on bail but had nowhere to turn.
Webber sprang into action, arranging accommodation, financial support, and assistance as Yehudit waited for six months for her trial. All this time, Yehudit had an unwavering belief that G-d would protect her, and “a deeply Jewish outlook on the world”, remembers Webber.
Her legal team advised her that she wouldn’t be found guilty, and to appear in court the day after Yom Kippur. Expecting the best, Yehudit went to court where she was found guilty, and was immediately sent to prison. She had no way of communicating with her child and Webber, who eventually found out what had happened.
The conditions in prison were terrible, Webber said, but, surprisingly, being Jewish helped. Webber thought Yehudit might want to hide her Jewishness in fear of anti-Semitism, but in the end, she wore her identity proudly. Being Jewish allowed her to receive reading material, kosher snacks, and fresher, kosher meals, which she shared and bartered. “For example, she traded a cucumber for better sheets, which she carefully cared for the whole time in prison.” The reading material and interaction with the prison chaplain “saved her sanity” because she had such limited interaction with the outside world.
But most importantly, Yehudit’s Judaism gave her hope, inspiration, and leadership. She taught the other women about Judaism, and read to them from her texts. She emphasised that we are “all made in G-d’s image”, and during Pesach, she shared her kosher grape juice and the message of freedom.
A rabbi who visited Yehudit told Webber that he went to inspire her, but came back inspired.
Yehudit served only nine months in prison before being deported back to Hungary, where she now lives with her son. The Webbers sent him to a Jewish summer camp for his barmitzvah, and he came back in love with his Jewish heritage. So, in spite of the fact that the path to Judaism was a difficult journey for Yehudit, it was her “saving grace” during her time behind bars, and is now being passed onto her son.
Webber said that if the British Jewish community had offered more support to her friend along the way, she might never have landed up in prison in the first place.
She encouraged community leaders to reach out to those less fortunate who might “fall through the cracks”, and if a Jewish person is in prison, to help in any way they can.