Photo Credit: Rhona Lewis

Amanda confirms what Tikva felt. “A human being is defined by his ability to choose. When you’re in jail, choice is taken away from you. Once you’re out of jail, you no longer trust your ability to make decisions. It’s so bad that in the morning, you can’t decide whether to shower or have breakfast first.”

That’s where Rebbetzin Tzipora steps in again. “Leaving the prison is traumatic,” she explains. That’s why Rebbetzin Tzipora has a well-thought out system that will help former inmates navigate their future. “The former inmate must be fully supported. Upon her release, aside from a family member, one of my representatives will accompany her home. Typically, the woman needs the first 24-48 hours to simply come to terms with her new situation. Since simple tasks like going for a walk or out for coffee are so daunting, the representative will be in constant contact with the woman and ease her entry into the outside world by joining her on shopping trips, running errands, and other every-day tasks that we do almost without thinking,” Rebbetzin Tzipora explains.

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An entry from Tikva’s diary demonstrates just how traumatic the first shopping trip after release can be: “What’s wrong with me? All those people… I’m feeling dizzy and sweaty… I can’t breathe. Please can we go home? On the bus? You want me to go on a bus? Are you crazy? I can’t. I want to get home, curl up into a ball and just sleep.”

Our interview is interrupted by a call. “Don’t worry,” Rebbetzin Tzipora tells one of the former inmates, “you can shop in the supermarket. I have vouchers from Rami Levi [an Israeli supermarket store] to give out,” she assures her. Then she is back with me.

“In prison, the woman didn’t have to worry about housing, employment or paying bills,” Rebbetzin Tzipora continues. “But once she’s out, it’s all on her. Someone has to help her readjust.” That’s why Rebbetzin Tzipora has a vision. “I want to open a house: a place where former inmates can meet people who understand what they went through. I dream of a two-story building. The first floor will include an open-plan lounge area furnished with comfortable sofas where women can take light refreshments. I want to also offer them a well-equipped kitchen so that they can prepare meals. The second floor will include offices, treatment rooms for therapy, and small private rooms where women can self-reflect, listen to music, call friends, etc.

“The center will also house a school that will serve the general public. Students will include former inmates and any other woman who would like to participate in the classes offered. I hope to include diverse subjects including Torah classes, personal empowerment courses and art sessions. In addition, the center will host social activities in which the former inmates can partake with their families.”

In fact, Rebbetzin Tzipora already has a pool of professionals waiting to offer their services: a makeup artist, an herbalist, a lawyer, an accountant, a drama teacher and a computer programmer. But more than that, an architect is already drawing up the plans for the building.

Often, the people who understand you best are those who have been through the same things you have been through. That’s why volunteers who worked in Neve Tirtza will comprise the staff. Over time, former prisoners will receive the necessary training to join. “I would love to work with inmates who have been released because after what I’ve been through, I believe that I can ease their reintegration into society,” says Amanda, passion filling her voice.

“It is so much easier to empathize with sick children, starving families and single-home parents than to feel for former inmates. And therefore it’s also easier to support the sick and poor in our society,” Rebbetzin Tzipora says. “When it comes to ex-prisoners, people just back away. There’s a feeling of You made a mistake. Now pay for it. And yet… unless you were there, you cannot understand it. It’s a completely different world behind bars.

David HaMelech tells us: My sin is always before me. For ex-prisoners, who have paid for their mistakes and who have sought forgiveness for their crimes, their sin is indeed always before them. They cannot escape it. All they can do is to learn how to deal with it.”

The center Rebbetzin Tzipora will open will equip former prisoners to face their new reality. Because, after all, don’t we all deserve a second chance?

 

Rebbetzin Tzipora can be contacted at tzi7670300@gmail.com.

* * * * *

Lock Me Up in Israel

Almost 18,000 prisoners fill the Israel Prison Service’s 32 correctional facilities, with more than two-thirds of convictions related to drug or property crimes. Jews, Christians, and Israeli-Arabs are housed in the same facilities, and sometimes share a cell as roommates. Israel has its fair share of white-collar crime and auto theft, but national rates for homicide, rape and other violent crimes are lower than in most developed countries.

Not only does Israel maintain fewer prisoners per capita than most Western countries, but released inmates achieve higher levels of reintegration into society. Recidivism rates in the US and Europe hover at 75%, while rates in Israel are as much as 20% lower. Israeli prisons themselves are less crowded than in most countries, in part due to the release of thousands of Palestinian “security” prisoners in recent years.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.