“The moment you enter prison, you lose your identity. You, as a person, cease to exist. You become a name and a number. Your only identity is your crime,” says Raizy Katz,* taking me into the desolation and misery of her five-year prison sentence. As she continues talking, however, Raizy’s inner strength becomes more and more apparent. This strength, built in prison, is the cornerstone for her future. It’s what makes Raizy say, “Being in prison saved my life.” And it’s what keeps her laughing when rebuilding her life is still full of challenges.
Things Fall Apart
Shortly after her marriage, Raizy and her husband moved to Israel where they spent the next fifteen years struggling to bring a measure of normalcy to their growing family. The regular ups and downs of family life were compounded by the fact that Raizy’s upbringing had relegated women to a secondary role without any rights and her husband was ready to capitalize on that idea. “As a child, I had learned that by keeping quiet, I could stay out of trouble and I brought this into my marriage,” Raizy says. “I managed to keep things running by listening to the voice that told me to do, do, do. I was so busy trying to hold everything together that I wasn’t able to connect to my children. I survived by avoiding all emotions,” she says. However, family affairs spiraled downwards to the point that Raizy was sentenced to five years in Neve Tirtza.
Prison Equals Death
“Being in prison is a kind of death,” says Raizy in the matter-of-fact voice that many survivors of disaster use when talking about the horrors they lived through. “Everything in this world needs some kind of nourishment. A flower needs sunlight, water and nutrients. A dog needs food and attention. A person needs food, attention and acknowledgment. In prison, however, you are no longer acknowledged as a person. You simply don’t count. You’re no longer human. So you cease existing in this world and enter another world. When you die, your body dies and your soul lives on. But in prison, your body doesn’t die – your soul dies and your body has to keep living.” So how did Raizy survive?
Although Raizy’s extended family were eager to support her, particularly after her divorce which took place shortly before she was arrested, Raizy was reluctant to let anyone into her life. “It’s ridiculous that the people who loved me the most and wanted to help me the most were the people I rejected,” she says. “My mother would send me money to use in the prison canteen and visit whenever she could, but I wasn’t yet emotionally healthy enough for the relationship,” she says. It would take eighteen months before Raizy was ready to reach out to her family once again. “In some ways you get used to sitting,” Raizy says, using the language that all inmates use to describe their time served. “You take a deep breath and find a way to cope,” she says.
Survival of the Spirit
In an effort to save her mind, Raizy became involved in every activity that the prison offered. “For a while, I worked in the kitchen as a mashgiach, but when I kept running into trouble for what they thought were my personal stringencies, I backed out and headed for the laundromat,” Raizy says. She also taught classes on Jewish subjects in the prison’s religious program.
While Raizy found a way to fill her days, finding social support was much harder. In prison, you become friends with the women you live with, but being in such close contact with the same people for years on end leads to friction over the smallest of things. “Women would complain to the warden that someone else had an extra shirt or that she was talking on the phone when she shouldn’t have been,” Raizy says. “The petty fights can drive you crazy.”
Raizy had always been religious. When she was suddenly thrust into the secular environment of the prison, she knew that, for her, survival meant increasing her spiritual awareness. “I felt that my soul was dead,” she says. “Luckily, I got a tremendous amount of encouragement from Rebbetzin Tzipora Har Sinai and other rebbetzins who came to visit us in the prison. I waited for Rebbetzin Tzipora like you wait for the sun to come up in the morning. She spent hours and hours talking to me,” she says.
One particular lesson learned in the Jewish studies classes stands out in Raizy’s mind. “The teacher told us that Hashem wasn’t standing there with a stick waiting to hit us,” says Raizy. “Being in prison means that you lose your sense of self-worth, but messages like these gave me back my sense of self. The rebbetzins told me that I was alive and that I was inherently good. With their help, I was able to believe in myself again,” she says.
Connecting to Hashem and to Herself
“I came into prison with an outdated and distorted worldview that relegated women to a secondary role without any rights,” says Raizy. “In prison, however, I learned to see how Judaism values women. I gained an awareness of myself and learned how to appreciate myself as a person, as a woman and as Raizy. I began to grow closer to Hashem. I listened to a lot of Torah lectures. I davened and cried a lot,” she says.
In prison, Raizy began intensive inner work by participating in individual and group therapies. But the main work came from within herself. “I had a lot of bitterness, anger, resentment. I felt that I didn’t deserve what had happened and wondered why it happened to me. Of course, I didn’t want to remain bitter for the rest of my life. The hardest part of my inner work was realizing that I could get rid of these negative feelings only by working at it. The feelings wouldn’t just disappear. I put in a lot of effort, but I know that I could never have come out of the misery alone. After I put in the effort, Hashem helped me leave it all behind. In the end, I began to see that everything is fair and that everything that took place happened to strengthen me. It’s still constant work, but I strengthen myself by remaining connected to Hashem,” says Raizy. She pauses and adds, “Being in prison was hard, but I’m grateful for it because it saved my life.”
For Raizy, her reentry into society began with a year-long stay in a half-way home. The home is primarily used as a stopover for drug addicts, which means that it wasn’t ideally suited for Raizy. While the home offered better physical conditions, it also offered several mandatory therapies geared towards helping the residents learn more about themselves and the choices they had made. “The therapies were good for former drug addicts, but not great for me,” says Raizy, who had already spent years remolding her personality. A year later, Raizy was remarried and one of her younger children had moved back home.
“It’s very hard not to compare my life now to what I had before prison,” says Raizy, who had been used to running up a credit card bill that she never had to glance at. Now, however, she wonders what she is going to have to cook for Shabbos. Even more important than a change in finances is the change in family dynamics – some of Raizy’s children refuse to have contact with her. “Of course that makes me sad… especially when Yom Tov arrives,” she says.
But for those children with whom Raizy is in contact, their relationship has changed for the better. “I can relate to them better than ever and offer them the emotional support and guidance that they need,” says Raizy. “I can help my boys understand women better and I can help my daughter navigate her marriage.” In fact, Raizy’s daughter, Shaindy, feels that today her mother is making up for lost time. “I’ve learned to appreciate my children and to thank them,” says Raizy. “This is now my life and I have to learn how to deal with it, so I try to focus on what I have,” she adds.
Before we end our talk, I ask Raizy if she has a final message for us. She thinks for a moment and then says, “I think that society has to become more aware of people who are different,” she says. Certainly, recent years have brought an increase in awareness and sensitivity to the needs of physically and mentally challenged individuals. But can we say the same about our approach to ex-prisoners? “People who were in prison still need love and respect,” says Raizy. “Don’t be afraid of talking to us. We’re people like you. Sure, we’ve lead different lives, but try to be accepting and welcome us back into society,” she says. It’s all about giving people a second chance.
You can contact Rebbetzin Tzipora Har Sinai at firstname.lastname@example.org.