Home Womens jersey A historic Jewish wedding at a New Jersey women’s prison

A historic Jewish wedding at a New Jersey women’s prison

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(This article originally appeared in the Jewish streams E-mail; subscribe here!)

THE FIRST TIME Jennifer Pasquarello saw the woman she would later marry walking down a hallway at Edna Mahan Women’s Correctional Facility in New Jersey for lunch with the rest of her unit. As she walked past a classroom, someone caught her eye. “I was standing in front of the window where she was and I thought, ‘I have to meet this girl,'” she told me recently.

After they ran into each other a few more times, Michelle Angelina, who is also incarcerated at Edna Mahan, approached Jen and asked her about her life. “We got along great,” Jen said. The two first became friends, then the relationship developed.

The two went to the law library together or stayed outside in the yard and fed the geese. They started sharing a bunk bed – Michelle upstairs, Jen downstairs. The women understood each other and felt enriched by their differences. “Sometimes she brings me out more of my shell,” Jen said. “And sometimes I make her calm down a bit more.”

In November, Jen got to work. She molded bread into a ring with a heart-shaped head and let it harden, then painted it purple with watercolors. In November, while the two were sitting across from each other in the yard, Jen passed the ring to Michelle and proposed. “She didn’t know I was going to ask her and she got a little choked up about it,” Jen said.

On April 11, Jennifer, 48, and Michelle, 39, tied the knot in the facility’s first-ever wedding between two women. Since I began corresponding with Michelle in 2017, I have seen her story through the singular lens of her battle to survive as a trans woman in Department of Corrections custody, to create a space where she could make a medical transition and live safely among other women. But on the couple’s happy day, under clear blue skies, I traveled to Edna, located about an hour west of Brooklyn on New Jersey’s rural border with Pennsylvania, to witness a different kind of ‘story. Even amid the horrors of mass incarceration, life goes on behind bars as it does in any other difficult circumstance. Michelle and Jen had fallen in love, and now they were going to celebrate.

That day, I met the other two outside attendees in the visitors’ parking lot – one a close friend of Michelle’s, the other a rabbi active in queer communities who asked that his name be withheld for safeguard his spiritual relationship with the couple. After leaving our phones and most other belongings in the car, we headed to the security trailer to be processed for entry. We placed our items on the x-ray conveyor belt and walked through a metal detector. Accompanied by prison staff, we were escorted out of the security trailer through the back door and into a prison van. After a brief drive through the grounds, we waited to be passed through a series of locked gates and doors, until we finally arrived at the gymnasium where the wedding would take place.

Michelle and Jen had already had their own journey to marriage. In New Jersey, incarcerated persons who wish to marry must first go to the county seat to obtain a marriage license. They must also pay the bill for the correctional officers mandated to accompany them on the trip. In mid-March, at a cost of $384, Michelle and Jen were shackled at the feet, wrists and ankles and driven to the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office and back to get their papers in order. They were kept in chains all the time.

For Michelle, who observes Shabbat and does her best to live by Jewish law, having a religious marriage was essential. (Jen, who grew up Catholic, learned Judaism and plans to convert, though completing her conversion has proven impossible because she cannot access a mikvah.) As they had planned on their wedding day, the prison administration agreed to allow the use of grape juice for the ceremony but denied the brides access to the chuppah poles. Party outfit? Refuse. Flowers? Also refused. Broken wine glass? Out of the question.

The arbitrary and capricious rules that govern prison life require creative workarounds. As we entered the gym, Michelle and Jen stood up to greet us, dressed in their beige prison uniforms. A friend had used the painted bread method to make matching rainbow earrings for the couple. Another friend had used watercolors, finished with floor polish, to paint their nails. Michelle wore blue eyeliner and Jen wore green.

As we waited for the ceremony to begin, I sat down with the couple’s incarcerated guests – three women they had become close to during their time behind bars. As Michelle and Jen left their dorm earlier in the day, they told me, everyone shouted in support. This ceremony is “quite monumental”, said a guest, Kathy. “They are making history,” added Talibah, another guest. News of the wedding had left Edna’s many other couples wondering if they should do the same. “Everyone is waiting to see if they will be separated after marriage,” Talibah said. The DOC has a history of separating couples, guests told me, and no one knew if that would change for couples who choose to formalize their relationships.

Despite the collective and creative spirit of the wedding party, there was always the problem of needing chuppah poles. How to circumvent this setback? Would it be possible to locate brooms? Eventually, the rabbi came up with a solution: the guests would perform the ritual by taking turns holding the tallit ourselves. After the brides signed their ketubah and state marriage license, a group of volunteers were assembled, each holding a corner of a tallit as high as they could. Michelle circled Jen three times and Jen circled Michelle three times. Then they walked together in a circle and joined the rabbi under the narrow wedding canopy.

Soon it was my turn to hold the chuppah. We were all, married and invited, incarcerated or not, huddled against each other, in a moment of physical closeness normally forbidden inside. A few correctional officers leaned against a wall near the door, leaving us alone. We did kiddush. Jen and Michelle exchanged rings and then shared their vows. “You have helped me to become kinder, gentler and more humble. I will fight for us,” Michelle said. “I will forever cherish you,” Jen said. Next are the seven blessings of marriage: after hearing them in Hebrew, we took turns reading the English translation.

As the ceremony drew to a close, the rabbi explained a final ritual: “Traditionally, at the end of a marriage, we would break a glass, to remind ourselves that even in our happiest days, there are structural breaks and personal suffering in our world.” But “I don’t need to remind you,” she added. “Your eyes are open to the fragility of the world, to systems that harm people and perpetuate evil. The pain of the world is yours.

Instead of breaking a glass, Michelle and Jen symbolically stamped their feet to break through the traumas they were carrying and move towards healing. The guests burst into joy. After singing the shehecheyanu, we all turned our backs on the couple to give them a brief moment of yichud (intimacy) – the chance to share some alone time together and a kiss on the lips.

Such opportunities are rare. Although they are married, Michelle and Jen cannot kiss good morning. Lying in bed next to each other to watch TV, even fully clothed, is a punishable offense, they told me. As their guests noted, there’s no guarantee that the New Jersey Department of Corrections will prioritize keeping them together or provide backup if they become separated. Their relationship adds richness to their lives, and it also carries risks. “[Being together] makes a lot of things easier,” Jen told me. “And many more difficult things.”

After the ceremony was over, the wedding party gathered around a plastic table to make Kiddush over grape juice and Motzi over sweet raisin challah. Eventually, a corrections officer approached to tell the visitors that our time was up. On the way back, we went through three locked doors and three locked doors, into the van to drive through the prison grounds, ushered in through the back door of the security trailer. I got my license and car keys and opened the door to the parking lot. I had barely left for an hour.

Despite the continuing restrictions, the two women are delighted to have married. These days, Michelle helps his now wife Jen with her homework and teaches her Midrash and Torah. They always read together and go out into the yard to feed the geese. For Michelle, getting married deepened her commitment to Jen as well as her faith. “It strengthens my trust in Hashem,” she told me. “It’s another beautiful part of my life. I can spend the rest of my life with the person I love. my neshama [soul] is related to his.