‘Free men behind bars’

At Pessah Seders in prisons, inmates are segregated, grape juice replaces wine, and by no means is the front door left open for the Prophet Elijah.

Yekutiel Yehuda Visner 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Yekutiel Yehuda Visner 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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 Elijah.
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.
“The logistical 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 nothing.”
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 possible.
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.”
It 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 b’toch soragim).”
Just then Visner takes out a pamphlet he wrote earlier in the week for circulation among inmates and staff, titled “Free Men Behind Bars.”
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.
Your existence 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 self-betterment.”
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 members.
According to Visner, “the organization [the Prisons Service] before the disaster and the organization afterwards are two different things entirely.
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 forget.
“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.
“If 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.