Halfway there

A rehabilitation program for recently released prisoners designed for Orthodox men claims to have an unparalleled success rate.

keren hateshuva CEO prisoner rehabilitation 311 (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)
keren hateshuva CEO prisoner rehabilitation 311
All day long at the large modern home on Rehov Kadima in Ramot, the front door stands wide open. It’s not that someone forgot to close it – it’s intended to remain open.
“The open door is symbolic, as well as practical,” says Rachel Ohana, spokeswoman for Beit Avraham, a hostel maintained by Keren Hateshuva, a nonprofit rehabilitation organization. “Our residents have had enough of locked doors and closed spaces. Leaving the door open says something all by itself.”
The residents Ohana speaks of are ex-convicts, men who have served time in one of Israel’s prisons and are now working their way back to living a normal life outside the walls.
The two hostels operated by the Keren – one in Ramot, the other in Beit Shemesh – function as homes for the men in transition and are not extensions of prison, says Asaf Yitzhak, who manages the Ramot facility. “Our residents spend a very intense nine months with us while we separate them from their former lives of crime and help them readjust to life outside. Making the transition from prisoner – where all decisions are made for you – to functioning as a free and working adult is extremely difficult. Our goal is to strengthen their commitment and to ease the trauma of the transition in every way we can.”
Two things distinguish Keren Hateshuva’s ex-convict rehabilitation program from that offered by other halfway houses. First, Keren’s rehabilitation and reintegration program is designed for men who have made the decision to accept and maintain a Torah-observant lifestyle while in prison. Most are ba’alei teshuva, returnees to the mitzvot. Secondly, Keren’s program differs from others in its unparalleled long-term success rate. Research conducted by the Israel Prison Service shows that 92 percent of the Keren’s “graduates” become and remain crime-free, productive citizens for at least five years following their release. Among non-religious hostels, the recidivism rate stands at 10% within three years. Among those released convicts who return home without going to a hostel or halfway house at all, 67% return to prison due to some new infraction.
“When we talk about our 8% recidivism rate, lots of people flat-out don’t believe it,” says Yoel Hazan, CEO and chairman of the Keren Board. “As far as we know, our recidivism rate is the lowest anywhere in the world.”
KEREN HATESHUVA came into being in 1972 when Yoel’s father, Rabbi Avraham Hazan, formerly chief chaplain for the Israel Police and Prison Service, founded an organization to assist ex-convicts in reentering normative society. He found that those ex-convicts who adopted a Torah lifestyle were far more successfully rehabilitated and far less likely to return to a life of crime. Upon his retirement, Rabbi Hazan turned management of the Keren over to his son Yoel, who assumed full control in 2000. Today the two facilities are overseen by an active board of directors and operated by resident managers, a variety of therapists, counselors, a criminologist, rabbis and active volunteers.
How does adopting a Torah-observant lifestyle help a just-released prisoner stay out of prison? Dr. Uri Timor, a criminologist at Bar Ilan University, wrote his 1990 doctoral dissertation on the subject. “My work focused on released prisoners who entered yeshivot upon release from prison, not hostels, per se,” he comments. “But there seem to be three factors that make the difference. First of all, when the released convict enters an institution where a religious lifestyle is in place, the former prisoner is far away from his old friends, the ones he associated with while he was involved with criminal activities. Now he has new friends, and he’s under the influence of a very different kind of people. That makes a big difference. Second, the person entering a religious setting has already made a big decision in his life. He has already, before he enters the institution, decided to create a new life for himself, a different lifestyle than before. So there’s the element of motivation. For whatever reason, before entering the religious institution, the ex-convict has already made a commitment to change his ways.”
The third point made by Timor is unique to Judaism. “Under Jewish law, once a person has repented of his past and reformed, no one is permitted to remind him of his previous life. What that means is that in a religious setting, the ex-convict loses the stigma. With no one reminding him of what he once was, of how he once acted, building a new life very different from the old becomes that much easier.”
Certainly, at least from the outside, there’s very little about the way Beit Avraham appears to remind any of the residents of where they used to live. Aside from the fact that the home appears a little neater and more carefully maintained than the average home on the quiet residential street, there’s nothing that signals group home or hostel of any kind.
A pleasant outdoor seating area, filled with potted plants and flowers, welcomes residents and guests alike. Once inside the home, however, differences appear. In the large room where a traditional family would likely put sofas, lounge chairs and maybe a television, here there’s only a large oval-shaped table. “This is where we have group therapy,” says Asaf Yitzhak, Beit Avraham’s manager. “We don’t need chairs for lounging or watching TV – no one has time for that. Each of our residents leaves very early in the morning for work, and most don’t return until late afternoon. After prayer and dinner, they’re occupied with counseling sessions, group therapy, classes with the rabbi or some other activity. They have very little leisure time – which is exactly what we intend. We need every minute to make our program work.”
Two weeks ago, five residents graduated – completed their nine months – so today 13 men live at Beit Avraham. “In another hour, we’ll have 14,” Yitzhak comments. “A new resident arrives this afternoon. Our capacity is 18; we have 18 beds in 10 bedrooms. The residents do everything the home needs to function – shopping for food, cooking, laundry and keeping the place spotlessly clean, which is part of the therapy, too. Right now David, one of our residents, is responsible for setting up schedules, assigning various tasks to each of the men. When David graduates, the job of scheduling will be turned over to someone else.”
The large, rambling three-level home contains a book-filled synagogue, a large eat-in kitchen, three bathrooms, laundry room, several patios and all the bedrooms, which are small but military-neat. “At the moment, six of our 13 residents are married with children, while the others are single or divorced,” Yitzhak notes. “We do as much as possible to nurture family relationships, so every two weeks a resident is allowed a weekend away with his family – assuming he’s followed all the rules. If he hasn’t, then the visit might not be permitted.”
WHO ARE these men? “Most had drug problems of some sort, but we have all kinds here – murderers, rapists, robbers and thieves. In deciding which of the many applicants to accept for our limited number of beds, we don’t consider what their crime was. What we look for are men we think will benefit most from our program. Applicants know we have certain standards. They must find and keep a job. They must be on time for meals and sessions. We test for drug use. We require Torah study, prayer and an observant lifestyle. Many of our residents became ba’alei teshuva – returnees to the mitzvot – while in prison, but they’re not exactly traditional returnees because in prison they didn’t have the range or the freedom to be fully observant,” says Yitzhak.
Implementing the first of Timor’s three big differences in religious hostels, one of the firm requirements for residents is that they are not permitted to return to their old homes or even to the general vicinity.
“Contact with old friends and familiar places makes starting a new life much more difficult. Throwing away their old phone and address books is a common thing to do.”
Finding work for these just-released ex-convicts is another issue. “The Keren helps – we have an extensive network of volunteers and board members who help,” says Yitzhak Rosenbaum, one of the Keren’s most dedicated volunteers.
Rosenbaum, a Ra’anana JD/MBA who made aliya from the US, devotes many hours to the residents. “When I tell people what I’m doing, they say, ‘Wow, that’s heavy!’ But my father was a rabbi. I come from a tradition of volunteerism. I came across Keren Hateshuva while I was involved with a legal pro bono organization, and my involvement grew from that. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute,” Rosenbaum says of the residents.
“You’ve been in prison for eight, 10, 12 years. You come out, and you don’t have a clue about cell phones, laptops, PCs – the technological changes alone are daunting. You don’t have the tools to deal with a world that didn’t exist when you went into prison. It’s challenging. Even mastering the public transportation system is significant. What kind of work can you possibly find? They’re not allowed to work in anything where they’d be mobile, so being a delivery man is out. Many end up doing janitorial work or gardening, neither of which is calculated to help build their sense of confidence or self-esteem. Worse than that, working at such low-paying jobs makes the old quick-cash criminal life seem that much more appealing. We’re working now to find a way to offer some vocational training along with everything else. That’s the frustration – we know there are things we could do that would help enormously, but we don’t have the resources.”
Money management is another priority. “Learning to budget and spend wisely is a big job,” says Yitzhak, who holds degrees in social work and family therapy. “On pay day, their inclination is to blow every shekel they have. What do they buy? Now that they’re out of prison, appearance is very important, part of the way they compensate, so many buy lots of clothes. Music and cigarettes, too – they all smoke. The concept of saving money to buy a bus ticket, or whatever else they might need before next pay day, has to be taught.”
EREZ (NOT his real name) is a tall, handsome man who appears to be in his mid-30s. “I’m new – I’ve only been here two weeks,” he says with an infectious grin. “I served 28 months of a 43-month sentence, first in Ramle, then Beersheba, then Shikma. Some of those prisons are supposed to be worse than others, but it didn’t seem that way to me. It just shows that you can get used to anything. Sometimes the minute my court date was over, I’d find myself longing to get back home – and by home, I mean the prison. Living here is so much better. The first thing that impressed me was how hard everyone works to help us get it right, to make sure we’ll succeed. Now – two weeks out – and the idea of prison seems horrible. There’s no way I’m going back – I don’t even want to think about it. It’s not that I’m afraid, it’s that jail just isn’t worth it. Going to jail sets you back 20 years. You lose your family, your money, everything. A week before I was sent away, I got married. We have a daughter I never knew. I’ll never get that time back – it’s gone. They say the best solution is time – time passes, and you gain perspective. But it’s not easy.”
Finding a good job was a boost to Erez. “I was lucky – I worked with engines before, and I found a job fixing engines again. I enjoy it. I like to fix things. It’s funny because before this program, I thought I could do anything. I would have said I didn’t need treatment. I thought I could do it myself and succeed. Fortunately, someone who knew me very well convinced me that wasn’t true. I listened – and I’m glad I did. I would have slipped back into my old ways, no question. But with all the encouragement and support I’m getting here, this time I’ll succeed.”
To be accepted into Beit Avraham was something that Erez wanted very much. “I’d become a ba’al teshuva in prison but still, on my first Shabbat here, I was really nervous,” he says. “Afterwards, I knew it was the best Shabbat I’d ever had. First of all, the food was so good, I blessed Hashem with every bite – we’ve got some really good cooks here. The whole day was nice. All week long we’re so busy with so much to do, there’s never a moment to stop and think. So on Shabbat, it’s quiet and relaxing. We have time for ourselves. We have synagogue in the morning, then a great meal. In the afternoons we study, have Mincha, then we sit around and talk. Nothing heavy – it’s just that we’re all together, relaxing. Family time, you might say.”
Eitan (not his real name), one of the Keren’s success stories, completed the Keren program two years ago but returns to visit frequently. With his boyish good looks and confident manner, Eitan is happy to tell people about the Keren. “I wish I could show people what I was like back then and what I am now, so they could see how I’ve changed. Before prison, I’d never worked – do you believe that? I’d never held a job.”
Laughing, he adds, “I was into other things. Now I live in Ashdod, I have a furniture building business, a trade I learned while I was in another hostel. I’m married, and my wife and I have a two-year-old son, Oded Nachman, named after the rabbi. I’ve even quit smoking. If it weren’t for the 14 months I spent here – you could do that back then – I’d be back in prison, I know that. I served seven and a half years, was never out on parole, so when I came out [of prison] I was in total shock. Fortunately I came here, and Asaf kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry, you can do this.’ He kept after me, and he was right – I could.”
What was the biggest shock upon being released from prison? “It’s like this: You go from a place where the only thing you know is to fight with people and use drugs. I was a junkie for 15 years, so when you come out, it’s pretty hard to stop. That’s why most people end up back in prison. They go to their friends – where else would they go? But I came here instead, and here life was different. ‘No, you can’t go to your friends. You must change.’ ‘No, you can’t eat whenever you want. We eat morning, noon and evening, and that’s when you eat, too.’ They managed my time –‘You must be here at 6 p.m. because that’s when we sit down and talk. If you come in at five minutes past six, you’re in trouble.’ It sounds like being in the army, but that’s not really it. What I needed was to understand. It was obvious: If I wanted to save my life, then I needed to change. I took one step at a time, and it worked.”
More softly, Eitan says, “I have a daughter from a previous marriage who’s almost 18 now. She’s going in the army. I’m sad to say I don’t know her at all – I missed everything because I was inside, outside, one prison after another. Now I have a second chance with my son, and this time it will be different.”
ANOTHER FACTOR in the Keren’s success, says manager Yitzhak, is that selected former residents come back to serve as counselors. “These guys close the circle,” Yitzhak says. “They’ve been in prison, they’ve come out, they know exactly what it’s like. They made the transition, and now they’re great role models.”
One of the counselors is Ya’acov (not his real name.) “I began a Torah life when I was in prison,” he says. “Somehow I connected with the people here. I’d been in prison for four years and had to interview to get the placement. I was so nervous. I wanted to live here so much. On one parole period, I came here for two days. I knew this place was for me. It wasn’t easy. I struggled to find a job, finally found work making windows, working with metal and glass. But it was a long commute – an hour each way – so all the way home I’d be nervous. I knew if I was even five minutes late, I’d be in trouble. Finally I left that job and instead took a job cleaning toilets at a yeshiva. I was willing to do whatever it took to be able to stay here. Today, I manage the building for all 220 yeshiva students. That’s what I tell the new residents – I started cleaning toilets and worked my way up. You can do it too.”
Between his two jobs at the yeshiva and at Beit Avraham, Ya’acov regularly logs 20-hour days. “I leave for the yeshiva very early, work all day, then come back here, where I work with the residents. But it makes me happy. This is good for me. I like my life. Every day I thank God for giving me everything I have, for letting me come to know all the yeshiva boys and be a part of their lives. For being able to help the residents here, who are going through the same things I did.”
For new residents, the first days are the hardest, Ya’acov says. “Lots of them want to leave almost right away,” he says. “It’s usually some little thing, nothing, really: ‘He didn’t talk to me! I want to leave!’ So I sit them down, tell them to take it easy. All of us here know how to deal with these things, how to speak to them. We have to reach their hearts. In order to make this work, we have to meet them right there at the core of their being. One thing I keep telling them is that when someone gives you something, you have to give back. You can’t just take it and walk away. So here at the Keren, they gave me a chance. For me, being able to help others is the way I give back. I do all kinds of things with the residents, maybe just taking someone to the bus stop because they’re afraid and confused. I might drive them to the National Insurance Institute or help them deal with some government office. I love watching them adjust and learn to live again. Sometimes the change happens in three months, sometimes in six, sometimes not until near the end. But you can see it happen – they just get it, finally, and they become a different person.”
Ya’acov maintains that there’s not just one big transition for residents, but two. “First, there’s the big adjustment to getting out of prison and coming here. But then at the end of the nine months, there’s another big step – leaving here and going out on their own. They know that even after they graduate, they’re always welcome here, but it’s still a big step. They have to live somewhere else, they have to keep a job or they’ll go back to prison. There’s a lot of pressure as that deadline approaches. We work very hard with them toward the end.”
THE WELCOMING neighborhood helps ease the transition, too. In Ramot, Yitzhak says, there’s none of the “NIMBY” factor – the “not in my back yard” attitude – that some neighborhoods affect toward halfway houses or hostels. “Not at all,” he says. “These guys are not only invited to neighbor’s homes for Shabbat meals, but they’re invited to weddings and other celebrations, too. They’re very well accepted, which also helps their rehabilitation, of course. It also helps that they all become family for each other.
“Of the five who recently graduated, all of them rented apartments nearby so they can still be part of the crowd,” Yitzhak says. “Coming back here is coming home. Here, they feel understood. Outside, it’s a tough world.”
That’s why it’s so painful when things don’t go right, Yitzhak says. “It’s very serious when someone fails, when the situation disintegrates to the point where they can’t be brought back within the group. What happens? They go back to prison. I explain over and over, ‘You’ve got to make this work. If you don’t, you go back – and it’s not just the penalty of prison, either. Going back to prison means you might lose your family, too.’ There might be a divorce and separation from their kids. They know it’s serious, but for many the criminal instinct is so basic, so deeply ingrained, it’s an uphill battle. One man here has been in prison eight times. Sometimes we have two generations – we had a father who graduated a few months ago, and now the son is here. He specifically wanted to come because he saw the change in his father. We’ve had brothers here at the same time. In fact, the new resident who’s arriving today has a brother here.”
As they await the arrival of the new resident, Yitzhak describes what the new resident is most likely experiencing.
“When they first arrive, they’ve been out of prison only for a fewhours. They’re in shock. All those years behind bars, years in whichthey didn’t have anything more to do than read the newspaper, are over.Now they have to master everything they need to survive – a job,learning about all the things they missed while they were away, dealingwith the outside world. Even little things take adjustment – hearingthe breeze through the trees, listening to traffic, seeing flowers.That’s why we have that patio area with a nice place to sit. Just beingable to walk outside whenever they want, to smell the fresh air, tohear children playing – that’s a big deal. It’s the reason the frontdoor stands open – to remind them that the sound of locks and keys issomething they don’t need to think about anymore.”