I could hardly believe it. There I was standing in front of a tiny prison cell in the maximum security prison on Robben Island, nestled quietly in the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa. I stood in silence, staring at the cell with its three rough wool blankets, its one lonely wooden stool and the small, hard metal bed that stood abandoned in the corner.
For 18 years, this oppressive space had been the "home" of Nelson Mandela. It was here that he suffered the indignities of physical torture and mental anguish. It was here that he wrote notes in secret, hiding them in the nooks and crannies of his cell, smuggling them to the outside world to call attention to his on-going struggle against the vicious apartheid regime of his homeland. I was startled from my deep concentration by the quiet voice of my guide, Charles Mboto, and brought back to the present. Charles is one of several black men who serve as guides for those like myself who come to Robben Island to see this prison and all it represents. Like the others, Charles was once a political prisoner on this island, in this prison.
He shows us around the prison - the yard where he was hit by guards on a regular basis for trying to speak with another prisoner; the lime pit where they were forced to work all day in the hot sun without water; and the flat, desolate sand where they would be buried up to their heads in the midday sun for hours as "discipline," merely to keep them broken and in line.
Charles had been arrested as a young man for joining an anti-apartheid group and was sentenced to five years on Robben Island. When the five, tortuous years were up, the authorities simply announced that he was still a danger to the state and added another seven years to his sentence. So there he stayed, with Nelson Mandela and so many others - imprisoned for the dream of freedom. His story would have been a powerful one in any season and on any day. But it was particularly powerful that day - for just a few hours later, I was sitting down to a seder on the first night of Passover. Imagine how I felt reciting the words "This year we are slaves, next year we will be free" after seeing the prison of Robben Island. "In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we personally went free from the slavery of Egypt," we read in the haggadah. And as I read those words, tears filled my eyes. I cried not only for those who had been imprisoned and beaten, robbed of their dignity and even killed simply for being who they were. For as I looked around the seder table at those wonderful, loving members of the Jewish community who had reached out to fulfill the mitzvah of "let all who are hungry come and eat" and had taken Didi and me into their homes to share the Passover seder, I realized how pained and conflicted and difficult their lives and the choices they were forced to make had been as well.
This week's Torah portion begins with God commanding Moses to take a census of all the Children of Israel. As I read the portion I realized that a census is not only a way of finding out who we are, but who among us is willing to stand up and be counted. So I thought back to my experiences in South Africa, and I wondered had I lived there before it was abolished just a few years ago in 1994, if I would have had the courage to stand up and be counted in the fight against apartheid. I suppose I will never know the answer to that question. So, instead, I have made a pledge to renew my commitment this year to stand up for the dignity of the invisible poor and the ignored homeless, and have joined the board of Chrysalis, to help bring jobs and dignity back into the lives of those most in need here in our own backyards.
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.