How would you like to spend your day together with like-minded colleagues working, studying Torah, and celebrating siyumim over a seudah you have prepared together with your mates? No worries about room, board and clothes, as they will be supplied. Begin the day in shul with a choice of two minyanim for shacharis; learn with your chavruta; work for several hours a day; then check in with sympathetic professionals who will assist you in your path towards personal growth.
Interested? The only catch is that you have to commit a crime with a sentence up to seven years in order to gain entry. You see, this is the Torani Department in Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle, Israel.
When Ma’asiyahu Prison was first established in 1958, it boasted a small shul for inmates. But thirty years later, in 1988, there was increasing demand for larger premises and more Torah-orientated activities. Sociological studies showed that inmates who were involved in religious studies and activities were more co-operative in prison, and less likely to return to crime upon their release. Thus the Torani Department was born and has flourished ever since.
Oded Harush, the Hidabrut correspondent, filmed his recent visit there and interviewed the man in charge, Rav Yoni Yoniyov. Once you get past the barbed wire, tall stone walls and security checks, you can look out for the Torani Department at the end of a courtyard. In case you overlook the thick metal door that sports a huge blue Magen David in the center and a big mezuza to the right, you can’t possible miss the prodigious sign above the entrance, “Beruchim Haba’im to the Torani Department.”
Rav Yoniyov discloses that none of the men incarcerated in Ma’asiyahu have been convicted for sins between them and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, but for sins committed against their fellow man. (Over the years, this prison has “hosted” a former Israeli prime minister, a president and several cabinet members!) Rav Yoniyov’s objective is to help re-educate and rebuild his charges through the teachings of our Torah.
M., originally from Russia, became religious only after he landed in prison. Slowly, he began to learn about Judaism, underwent circumcision there in the infirmary, and asked to be moved to the Torani Department. Today he goes to shul, is learning about his heritage and beginning to take responsibility for his actions. When asked if upon release he will reveal to the outside world that he had spent time in prison, he replies with a resounding “Yes!” If anyone shies away from him, he feels that is their problem, not his. His life has changed here; he has an improved set of values, a better sense of self, and views his imprisonment as part of his tikkun.
As we move on into the shul, then to the library and into the study room (referred to as “The Shteibel”), we pass by a handwritten sign advertising “Gemach Chasdei Esther.” Illustrated and colorful posters in the corridor declare “Love your Neighbor as You Love Yourself,” and “He Who Trusts in G-d Will Be Surrounded By Chessed.”
Some of the inmates were observant upon entering the prison, or came from religious backgrounds. Y., for instance grew up in a religious home and attended yeshiva. He served in the army, got married, went on to earn a law degree, practiced law, and had a good job in a public institution.
However, after his divorce, his life began to fall apart. He lost his job, his apartment, and became penniless. That is when he made friends with some new, shady characters. The crooked business deal they put together landed Y. in prison for seven years.
But now in prison, in the Torani Department, he has turned over a new leaf. Actually, the leaf is not new – he has returned to his old self. He has several chavrutot and hears a shiur from the Rav who comes in daily from outside the gates. He boasts that he has only nine more masechtot to complete in order to finish the entire Shas! He also recently completed a course in safrut. He produced his newly acquired certification as a sofer stam (a scribe) to the interviewer, as well as a sample of his beautiful script.
Rav Yoniyov is visibly proud of the great strides and accomplishments his wards have made. Through Torah and mitzvot, they regain their own self-respect, they learn to help one another and to respect their fellow man. He explains that every person is responsible for himself and his deeds, and must find his tikkun from the point where he is at. Each person has his own internal Waze and the ability to recalculate his journey anew.