Israeli convicts make the most of High Holy Days behind bars

Like on the outside, the usual sparsely attended synagogues are bursting on Yom Kippur in prison, with seats in high demand.

By
September 22, 2015 10:54
The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra

The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra plays traditional music to the prisoners ahead of the High Holy Days. (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)

As Franz Kafka wrote, it’s suicidal for a Jew not to go to synagogue on Kol Nidre, though some of us may have more reason than others.

At Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle, the facility’s chief rabbi, Ch.-Supt. Gabriel Ezra, said everything is going smoothly ahead of the first High Holy Days since he moved to the facility eight months ago from Rimonim Prison. Among the preparations, he’s arranged visits from around 50 rabbis in the past month to speak to prisoners about the holidays and the theme of renewal and redemption.

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“We talk to the prisoners to try to give them tools to ask for forgiveness for the things that they’ve done. Yom Kippur is the day that people deal with these things, to make amends,” Ezra says.

The way Ezra sees it, there are two types of prisoners on Yom Kippur – those who spend months, even much of the year, thinking about how they’ll spend the fast and atone for their sins, and who try to make the most of the time. The rest resemble many secular Israelis on the outside: They put on a kippa and go to Kol Nidre at the beginning of Yom Kippur and then come at the end of the fast to hear the shofar, book-ending the day with traditions that feel like home and give them a taste of the holy day.

He said a third type – those who don’t observe the holiday, don’t fast or take part at all, is a small minority, and they tend to be discreet and respect the holiday regardless.

The first category includes prisoners who, in the month or so before Yom Kippur, try to make amends, try to reach out to their victims or other people they hurt, with many asking to meet with prison social workers to discuss how they can see their children again, reconcile with family or rebuild bridges they burned on the outside.

“Some of them are more open to it, and then there are prisoners who are fine until you ask them to deal with what they did,” Ezra said, adding that not everyone is interested in atonement.

Whatever spiritual preparations are necessary for the day, there are still the logistics of the High Holy Days to master as well, especially when you’re planning a fast day for a facility for some 1,190 inmates, most of them Jews.

Ezra said he’s hired seven cantors to perform services on Yom Kippur, with each responsible for the worship hall on a specific cell block. The other six cell blocks have prisoners who will lead the services, Ezra said, adding that often the inmates are more comfortable with one of their own.

Like on the outside, the usual sparsely attended synagogues are bursting on Yom Kippur in prison, with seats in high demand. Unlike on the outside though, Ezra said people don’t auction off seats and aliyot to the highest bidder, though he said sometimes people make promises about volunteering more for the shul or elsewhere in exchange for the honor of taking part in the services on the High Holy Days.

Before the fast they’ll serve a heavy dinner to help those fasting make it till the next night. Once the meal is over, all kitchen facilities at the prison will shut down until after the fast. The prison will set out sandwiches and other prepared food over the next day for those not taking part – non-Jewish prisoners especially – most of which, Ezra said, is taken back to prisoners’ cells and eaten discreetly so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. To break the fast they’ll serve typical prison fare – schnitzel, pasta, greasy and starchy food that fills you up – but will have added sweets for those coming off 25 hours without food or drink.

An added issue, potentially, is that this year the High Holy Days overlap with the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha.

Ezra and other prison officials have said they don’t expect the overlap to cause any tensions behind the walls, presenting the prisons as a sort of model of coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Two weeks ago the prison hosted the latest in a series of events leading up to Rosh Hashana and the Slihot traditions of prayers and rituals asking for forgiveness before the days of awe. The guests of honor were the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra, which features traditional Sephardi, Arab and Andalusian music and poetry performed in Hebrew and Arabic.

The singers from the orchestra gave blessings in Hebrew and Arabic for the High Holy Days and Id al-Adha, and sang prayers of forgiveness. There was a minor faux pas at the end, when Prisons Service Commissioner Aharon Franco thanked the orchestra and then told the crowd they’ll be performing the next night in Tel Aviv and over the holiday at the city’s port, before catching himself and adding, “that might not be relevant for most of you here.”

One of the Rosh Hashana traditions, the tashlich ceremony symbolically casting one’s sins into a body of water, is a bit trickier in a secure facility. Without a body of water available, Ezra says they use a spigot of some sort, spilling the water so that it creates a stream in which clumps of bread are tossed. Though in some communities a small inflatable pool filled with fish is used for the casting of bread, Ezra said this is not done in prison.

Regardless, even if not quite everything is available and the facilities may seem a bit ad hoc, there are those who say they’ll make the best of it.

“The first time I ever fasted was in prison,” says “Eyal,” a 22-year-old inmate serving a two-year sentence for “violent crimes and firearms offenses.”

Eyal says it’s a sort of peer pressure situation in a sense – most of the Jewish prisoners come from traditional backgrounds, and not secular households like the one he grew up in. Behind bars last year on Yom Kippur, he saw everybody else fasting, and seized the opportunity to try it for the first time.

“So I did it, and I started to understand the meaning of Yom Kippur,” he said, adding that the feeling was strange, and being without a cigarette for 25 hours was hard, but he’s happy he did it.

That said, he hasn’t been back to synagogue since that Yom Kippur, though he’ll be back this year for the services, showing that some things really are the same on the inside. 


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