Pessah Seders in the nation’s prisons are a “respectable, festive holiday meal
in every way,” though with some notable exceptions, according to Prisons Service
Chief Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Visner.
Grape juice takes the place of wine,
and under no circumstances is the front door left open for the Prophet
Visner is a busy man these days. The holidays are always a
demanding time for him, and overseeing kashrut for Pessah preparations for the
dozens of institutions housing wards of the state is an around-the-clock
undertaking on par with the organizational demands of a major military venture,
according to the 53- year-old former tank commander.
demands are very complicated. In the army, an operation that achieves 90 percent
of its objectives is considered a success; for this operation, if there is a
single plate that has hametz left on it then than it’s a failure. It’s 100% or
Visner, a father of five from Rehovot, is responsible for 28
rabbis at dozens of correctional institutions across the country, as well as
several dozen Torah study centers and 200 volunteers who offer religious
services in the prisons. He also organizes visits by Muslim and Christian
clergymen, who handle the religious needs of approximately half of the inmates
who are not Jews.
Pessah is the largest operation, however, and in the
days leading up to the feast of freedom Visner bears the ultimate responsibility
for more than 100 temporary kashrut supervisors brought in to ensure that the
kitchens and commissaries are kosher for Pessah and that all the necessary
supplies are on hand for the convicts to enjoy the holiday as much as
He is also responsible for hiring dozens of yeshiva students to
officiate on Seder night, and who undergo special training to that end. Many of
those yeshiva students are also hired by the Prisons Service to read the megilla
each year during Purim.
According to Visner, security considerations
require that every branch of a prison hold a different Seder for different types
of prisoners, making sure to segregate informants or other prisoners who might
be in danger in a general population setting, and to implement other segregation
decisions made on what Visner called “intelligence considerations.”
also requires ensuring that an individual Seder meal and haggada is available to
every prisoner held in solitary confinement.
According to Visner, one of
the greatest challenges is conveying the message of the festival of freedom to
people who are locked behind bars.
“What may be most important aspect [of
the Seder], in addition to the kashering and the separations of prisoners, is
the spiritual aspect, in that, how do you communicate the holiday of freedom,
for those who are imprisoned? I call it being “free men behind bars” (bnei horin
Just then Visner takes out a pamphlet he wrote earlier
in the week for circulation among inmates and staff, titled “Free Men Behind
In it he describes the preparations the Prisons Service carries
out for Pessah and deals with the question of “How can we feel like free men
while we are behind bars?” The pamphlet reads, “Of course the feeling of freedom
is dependent on the personal feelings of every individual.
as a free man is dependent on the feelings and emotions surrounding you, and is
not dependent on your physical location.”
It finishes with the prayer,
“We exited Egypt to freedom following God’s design... With the grace of God we
will leave prison for freedom, as honest people who make a positive impact on
society and the nation following personal preparation and real, honest
A burly, genial man who spent 26 years in the IDF,
mainly as a chaplain, Visner‘s last position in the army was as the chief rabbi
of the Central Command. Visner served as an IDF rabbi for several years in south
Lebanon, where by his estimate, he oversaw the identification and preparation
for burial for more than 150 fallen soldiers.
Last December, he did the
same for many of the 44 Prisons Service officers killed in the Mount Carmel
forest fire, and paid dozens of calls to the homes of bereaved family
According to Visner, “the organization [the Prisons Service]
before the disaster and the organization afterwards are two different things
It’s a small organization, everyone knows each other, it was
not a simple thing to deal with.”
A few months after he retired from the
IDF four-and-a- half years ago, Visner took the prison post with the perspective
that it, too, is a position of national service, where as a rabbi he can make a
difference in the lives of people whom many in society would sooner
“We try to explain [to inmates] that prison is also an
opportunity as well as punishment. There is a reason that God brought you here,
and [you should ask yourself] how you can grab this opportunity to reach a new
path in life? We try to teach them to have a goal in mind and take this goal as
a new opportunity.”
Just then, Visner’s phone rings and on the other end
is a former convict calling to wish him a happy holiday and thank him for his
help during the man’s incarceration. Visner said the caller also stressed to him
that as of that morning, he had been sober for two years and 14 days.
we want to punish these people [convicts], we could just put them in a pit like
they used to in ancient Egypt. But if you want to have them get back out and not
hurt your family or your children, give them hope. Use the detention as a
catalyst for a new beginning, this is what we teach,” Visner said.