On November 17, 2015, shame, disbelief, and insecurity invaded my carefree and joyful home. My husband Victor was arrested and his mugshot appeared in the local newspapers.
Suddenly, my daily routine involved visiting the county jail and attending court appearances, in addition to regular tasks like taking my three beautiful children to school. I asked myself, “How did this become our lives? How will we survive such horrific circumstances?” Each day I dragged myself out of bed for my children. No matter what new problem arose, I resolved to do whatever it took to ensure that they wouldn’t feel the brunt of it. I didn’t want them to feel responsible for what their father did.
I tried to light the menorah, sing, and recite the blessings as Victor had.
A month after the news broke, it was Hanukkah—the first holiday that our family really felt Victor's absence. Who would lead us in singing Ma'oz Tzur? Who would guide us in prayer? How could we celebrate the Festival of Lights when darkness blanketed our family? I tried to light the menorah, sing, and recite the blessings as Victor had. But I could see in my kids’ faces that it was not the same.
The holidays were previously a time of laughter and togetherness. But now they were a stark reminder of who was missing and why.
It was even harder that no one in my "world" belonged to the club of women with incarcerated husbands. I received support from friends and family, but they didn’t know what it was like to be in my shoes. When I discovered the Aleph Institute, an organization that supports families with loved ones in prison, I suddenly had a community that understood what I was going through. They understood the shame, terror, and worry of having a loved one who was incarcerated. They understood what it felt like not having him there to celebrate big life events like birthdays, graduations, and bar mitzvahs.
And that understanding made all the difference, especially when it came to the holidays. They were there for me, to listen or provide advice. They also offered to send presents to my children for Hanukkah. The thought meant so much—somehow it helped me reconnect to typical Hanukkah customs. And though my children missed their father terribly, Aleph’s support helped us learn to adjust to a new normal. It’s like my family has been my oxygen when I cannot breathe anymore; and the community at Aleph has been the match to keep my candle lit when the flame is almost out.
In times of despair, I try to remind myself that this suffering isn’t permanent.
Others also helped me stay strong during this time. When the weight of my worries felt like too much to bear, I would send an SOS to Rabbi Zvi, or to Cori and Sheina at Aleph. I knew I could do this any time and they’d be there for me, to listen and provide emotional support. My rabbi would end each email to me with the simple words, "stay strong.” It meant a lot, especially during the holidays when I missed Victor the most. And he was there for Victor as well. He made a point of visiting my husband in prison. And throughout the year, he makes sure other rabbis see my husband so that he has a religious connection if he needs it.
I do know that I have been blessed with a network of people that will help me through it.
In times of despair, I try to remind myself that this suffering isn’t permanent. Though the holidays are still the toughest time, I have an incredible support system to help me “stay strong.” In the past, I had no intention of lighting the menorah, but Rabbi Zvi explained how doing so would bring light to our family during a time of such darkness. It’s a really important custom for me to remember.
I don’t yet understand what I’ll learn from this painful journey. But I do know that I have been blessed with a network of people that will help me through it. They have eased the pain of a Hanukkah without Victor. For that I will be eternally grateful.
Heidi is the proud mother of 3 amazing and strong children. She has worked as a social worker for most of her career. She believes that while we do not choose some of the things that happen to us, we can choose how to live with them. She attributes her resiliency to the support of family, friends and the Aleph Institute. Yoga has been another vehicle that has helped her learn to breathe, heal and let go of the pain. Living one day at a time is the motto that she tries to live by.