I arrived for the first time at the Mishan old-age home in Neot Afeka, a Tel Aviv neighborhood, last September 11, in the afternoon. I’d gone there directly from the offices of the Prison Service in Ramle and was met by the institution’s hefty security officer. He had begun working at Mishan after retiring from the Prison Service, I learned later. Some said he had been a prison warden. In our first conversation, as changing images of the home’s corridors and halls flickered on the television screens behind him, he warned me that the entire grounds were covered by security cameras, so I shouldn’t think about doing anything stupid.
Immediately after that, he said, “We want the community service workers to feel at home here. Part of the family.” He told me that I would be working in the institution’s laundry unit, and sent me on my way.
I reported for work the next day at 6:50 A.M. The entrance was manned by the night guard, who was waiting for his replacement. I punched my time card, made sure the guard also recorded my arrival time, and went down to the basement, looking for my place of work for the months ahead. The air was thick; an unpleasant heat emanated from the pipes that snaked across the walls, and a large black garbage can collected drops that fell nonstop from the ceiling. The place was almost completely deserted. Sitting in the only open room was a woman in her forties with orange hair and glasses.
“Good morning. I am Uri, a new community service worker in the laundry,” I said. “It’s closed there now. Can I boil some water for a cup of coffee?” “No!” she snapped back. “I don’t know who you are, and I am using the plug to charge my phone.” I tried to explain who I was, but made little headway. During the day, two employees asked me with a smile who I was. I introduced myself as a new community service worker and the smiles disappeared. That was the beginning.
The legal saga that sent me to the old-age home began in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. There, following the first hearing in my case [I was convicted of receiving classified information from former soldier Anat Kamm, who is now serving a prison sentence] and before I was formally sentenced, I was referred to an “assessment for intended community service workers.” The referral from the court for a medical checkup and an interview in the Prison Service is standard procedure for defendants in criminal cases who are expected to receive a prison term of up to six months - the maximum term that can be converted into community service work.
As a resident of Tel Aviv, I belong to the Prison Service’s central district; its offices are located in the complex of jails in Ramle. Finding the place would severely tax even far more gifted navigators than I. The notification I received carried no address, only a post office box number, nor was the explanation much clearer on the Prison Service website. “The headquarters of central district are located in the city of Ramle, amid the complex of correction facilities that is under its responsibility,” it stated. The small buildings from which the community service operation is managed lie close to massive residential towers, which overlook a landscape of fences, watchtowers, prisons and an ugly shopping complex.
I was at headquarters three times. (The minimum is twice - once for the assessment and the second time on the day the community service work begins. I had to report there a third time, but more about that below.) On all three occasions, only men were there. Based on my impression, on the statistics and on a conversation with a Prison Service officer about the subject, women commit far fewer crimes than men. Those who come to the facility first wait in a small hut, next to a dirty toilet. The entrance to the hut is via a huge parking lot, which is open to everyone. The door on the other side of the hut leads into the Prison Service complex and is always kept locked. It is opened only when the name of one of those waiting behind the barred window is called out.
There is an air conditioner in the hut, along with benches and a desk on which are brochures explaining in general terms what community service work consists of. Immediately after being summoned into the complex, I was asked a few general questions for identification and registration. I was then photographed. In the next stage, a physician came in and I was told to declare any medical problems.
This was followed by an “interview.” I was ushered into an office where a few female police officers were sitting and took a seat opposite one of them. She explained to me briefly that I was going to serve my sentence doing community service work, probably at the Reut medical rehabilitation center in Tel Aviv. She did not ask about my skills, whether I had ideas about places where I might be able to contribute more, or whether there were places that would be unsuitable for some reason, such as emotional difficulty working with certain population groups. I tried to understand whether there were other options and asked if I could see a list of places where community service work was done. The answer in both cases was negative.
Between the interview, the photograph and the medical check, I waited on benches next to the Prison Service offices. This was an opportunity to meet other community service workers: those who were here for an assessment, like me, and those who had been summoned for other reasons (various clarifications, a change of work place and the like). There were also some who had done community service work before. A few claimed that it was better to go to jail, because a prisoner, unlike a community service worker, is paid for his work.
There is also a rumor that community service workers are entitled to a supplementary income allowance from the National Insurance Institute, but none of the workers I met in the months that followed had ever been successful in obtaining this allowance. There are apparently too many restrictions and obstacles, the main one being that a community service worker whose partner is employed is not entitled to the allowance.
Light, air, Vitamin D
I returned to the Ramle facility on September 11, the day on which I was to begin to serve my sentence. In the interim, I had done some research among friends and on the Internet about Reut and had prepared myself for work in an institution in which some of the patients were comatose. This time I took a seat opposite a different officer, who was far more cordial than the previous one. “You will not be stationed at Reut but at the Mishan old-age home in Neot Afeka,” she informed me. “They need someone in the laundry unit.” She added that the work was not considered especially hard and that my shift would be from 7 A.M. until 2 P.M. She added that I would punch a time card and that, as a double check, the guard at the entrance would record my arrival and departure times every day. She printed out a page showing the expected date of completion of the community service.
I now learned several things, but above all that the four months to which I had been sentenced bore a quite amorphous character. In practice, community service involves filling a quota of days - in my case, 83 days because holidays and weekends were not counted. I also learned that the hours of work differ in different places, but that a day’s work consists of a minimum of six and a half hours and a maximum of eight. If you have to report for work later than usual, or leave earlier for any reason, you have to let the employer know in advance, but a day on which you work less than six hours is not counted - so if you get up late, for instance, it isn’t worth going in at all. You were allowed to work five hours on a holiday eve, but you had to make up the missing hours at the end of the period. The Prison Service officer also told me that the day of reporting to the Ramle facility would be counted as one of the 83 days, but if I had to come back again for any reason I would have to make up that day.
From Ramle I went to Mishan. I hadn’t read up about the place, and I don’t know anyone who is in an old-age home, so I wasn’t sure if I should be glad that the comatose folk had been replaced by old folks. My main job, as I’ve said, was in the laundry service. My bosses were two affable women of Russian origin. They told me that this unit was in charge of doing the laundry for the dozens of patients in the two nursing wards. The residents’ clothing is stamped with a number. Each clean item is folded and arranged on shelves by number, after which the clothes are taken up to the wards. In time, I recognized some of the clothes that returned to the laundry time and again, and when I took supermarket carts filled with bags of clothes to the wards I also recognized them on the residents.
Every day I folded large piles of clothing; the beginning and end of the week were the busiest times. I found it somewhat amusing that this was what I was doing, as I had always pitied the salespeople in clothing stores who have to refold shirts that people like me put back messily after trying them on. One of the skills I acquired in the old-age home was a rapid-folding technique for clothes.
Betwixt and between, the storeroom manager - who reminded me of a company sergeant in the army - sometimes gave me other tasks. For example, he had me distribute disposable diapers in the wards, and I then understood why I hardly ever found myself folding underpants. When I mentioned that some of the clothes I was folding were more like rags, I was told that there were families that don’t provide new clothes for their relatives in the home and that nothing could be done about it.
In addition to the laundry work, I was also sent to the physiotherapy room. From the nursing wards I took patients in wheelchairs for 10 minutes of physical activity. I followed behind with the wheelchair while the therapists walked the old people, so that if they should fall backward they would land on the chair and not on the floor.
In physiotherapy I encountered old people who were in a state of dementia: people who did not utter a word, mumbled gibberish syllables or spoke disconnectedly.
There was one phrase that one heard over and over in the old-age home, spoken by the staff, the visitors and the families, in the elevator as I handled the wheelchair or in physiotherapy, when one of the old people managed to take three steps with the aid of two physiotherapists: “Shelo neida” (“May it never happen to us”) we muttered to each other with a nod of the head.
On one of my first visits to physiotherapy, I stood next to an elderly woman who was asked to pass a red sponge ball back and forth. If she didn’t succeed, she became agitated and stopped cooperating. The therapist went over to her and mentioned the title of a book. To my amazement, the elderly woman, who until then had not uttered one coherent sentence, started to declaim a lovely children’s poem beautifully. The therapist took a book out of her bag and explained that the old woman used to write children’s books, and this poem appeared in one of the books. The physiotherapist, who later allowed me to take the patients out for a short walk in the yard for some light, air and Vitamin D told me that many people with dementia have “islands of memory.”
There was one woman I regularly escorted to therapy and also took outside whenever I could. Her face reminded me of someone I knew - maybe that was why I felt that her gaze was only apparently expressionless.
I walked with her among the Filipino caretakers escorting residents whose condition was not as grim, and who preferred to look away when she passed. I suppose I looked like a grandson who had come to visit his grandma. The woman never made a sound.
The coffee incident
After a few weeks of acclimatization, I met with the institution’s cultural director. I wanted us to consider together what I could do in addition to working in the laundry. I thought in terms of leading discussions of current affairs with the residents, or giving a creative writing class. I also tried to arrange a meeting with the old-age home’s director to further these ideas. She had never spoken to any of the community service workers in the period when I was there. A few days later, the cultural director informed me that the security officer had vetoed my suggestion. Nor was I able to set up a meeting with the director.
I was not the only community service worker who suggested doing something in addition to his assigned job. There were three other men doing community service work in the home, all of them younger than I. One of them was doing two months of community service work after his sentence on drug charges was stiffened. He was in charge of painting and plastering. We usually ate breakfast together: toast, a hardboiled egg or an omelet, cream cheese or cottage cheese, yogurt, tuna and sliced vegetables. He wanted to give the residents English lessons. Another community service worker, a computer expert, who finished serving his sentence shortly after I arrived, said he had been tried for hitting an empty parked car and leaving the scene without reporting the accident. He worked with the institution’s electrician. His suggestion - to instruct residents in the computer room (which I never saw in use) - was also rejected.
About once a week, a Prison Service officer came to the old-age home for a spot visit. She checked that the service’s workers were present, checked our employee IDs and talked with us and with our bosses. After two months there, I found myself at the center of her conversation with the security officer, after I’d clashed with him over something very trivial, which I thought was a reflection of the inappropriate way we were treated. As service workers, we arrived at the old-age home before most of the other workers and usually, for the first half-hour of the day we had nothing to do. This was an ideal time to drink one’s morning coffee, but it wasn’t so simple: We were forbidden to enter the guard’s room to make coffee. The kitchen door of the office was also locked to us and in the dining room we were yelled at when we made black coffee early in the morning.
So I made the coffee in the shelter used by the janitors - contract workers who were glad to provide us with the hot water. But then it turned out that as service workers, we were forbidden to sit in the residents’ areas, such as in the home’s large interior courtyard. We were sent to the building’s rear entrance, near the trash dumpster and the trucks that unloaded their daily cargo of food and adult diapers.
I was not willing to accept this kind of treatment. I told the security officer and the Prison Service officer that it didn’t make sense for the home to benefit from our services but keep us hidden from the residents. The security officer was not impressed. I think he also might have been uncomfortable having a journalist wandering the halls of the place and seeing the way most of the contract workers, many from the village of Jisr al-Zarqa, were treated. Their status was even lower than ours: They arrived very early each morning in organized transport, received minimum wage and couldn’t even eat in the dining hall with the other workers but were made to eat in the shelter, at their own expense, I believe.
And so, one Friday afternoon during Operation Pillar of Defense, a few minutes before a siren shattered the calm in Tel Aviv, I received a phone call from the security officer. “Don’t come here on Sunday,” he said. “Go straight to Ramle, to the Prison Service.”
Thus, two months after I began my community service, I went once again to the Prison Service offices, this time for what was termed a “hearing.” The security officer informed me that the old age home had requested that I stop doing my service there, asked what the background was to this and told me I was being assigned to a new work place, a day center for the elderly called Merkaz Avivim, in north Tel Aviv.
The next morning I went to Avivim. That same day the center's director called me in for a meeting, introduced herself and told me about the place. Many dozens of elderly people come to the center every day from all over Tel Aviv, have breakfast and lunch there, and take part in a variety of activities - computer lessons, group sing-alongs, yoga classes, painting, exercise, lectures and more. In the afternoon, the center is used for other activities, including for Holocaust survivors.
As community service workers, she said, we must arrive each morning at seven and stay until three in the afternoon, and assist the small staff in whatever way is necessary. She asked me to think about other ways that I could personally contribute to the place. I was pleased to be asked, and so during the two months I was there I gave classes and led discussions on different subjects several times a week. Each time I chose a different topic - from the latest technological innovations to attitudes toward the elderly in Israeli society - and got a discussion going on it.
Once, an old man came into the room and started to yell and curse at me because of the crime I had committed: “He’s a traitor! Why are you talking to him at all?” he shouted. The people in the room hushed him and the director took him aside and made it very clear to him that he could not behave that way. He never did that again.
Along with me, there were two other community service workers at the center. They were in their forties and had families. One of them found it very difficult to adjust to this framework and often did not show up (in part because the work seriously affected his real job). He had been convicted of a traffic offense. The other, who was newly religiously observant and owned a restaurant, had committed VAT offenses.
Both of them, to the best of my recollection, were serving six-month terms. Our assignment was to assist with the center’s ongoing maintenance. In an endless cycle, we repeatedly arranged the various activity rooms. We also helped serve and clear up after breakfast and lunch, threw out garbage, cleaned, helped escort the elderly people into the transport vehicles when they arrived in the morning and left in the afternoon, and did other tasks, too.
Almost every day, people who had been sentenced “to do service for the benefit of the community” arrived at the center. Their punishment was measured in hours, which were divided across a period of time. For example, a young man who had been sentenced to serve 60 hours for committing violent offenses came once a week and helped out in the computer room; a physician who did not pay his ex-wife her full maintenance costs gave talks on medical subjects. Another young man, a trance fan who owned a sex shop, had been convicted of selling Viagra without a permit.
For the first time I also met women who had been sentenced to work for the public benefit. A nurse who had been convicted of a traffic offense came to the center once a week and amid gossiping with the old folks checked their blood pressure. Another woman, who had been convicted of an offense relating to her ex-husband, gave graphology lessons. One thing I noticed was that in most cases years passed between the offense and the start of the punishment. For most of these people, the events for which they had become community service workers were episodes in the remote past.
Time passed, and at the end of two months the responsible officer from the Prison Service informed me that a Wednesday at the beginning of January would be my last day in the home. I already knew this, because throughout this period I had kept a calendar on which I crossed out each day that passed. On my last day, I brought bourekas, salads and a bottle of arak, and the whole staff indulged in an upgraded breakfast. I thanked everyone for treating me so well and left with a good feeling. The next day, I got a call from the Prison Service. They had miscalculated: I had to do three more hours. It was ludicrous, but on Sunday morning I reported to the center and put in a few more hours of arranging tables and chairs before going home. It was my last time there.
“Maintain the security of the information, the classification of the document and the letter as required!” declared the Prison Service envelope I got in the mail a few months after returning to my regular life. That directive was not unique, even if one might have thought differently, given the circumstances under which I received it. The letter consisted of three and a half lines. Its essence: “We hereby confirm that Blau Uri - who was sentenced to four months in prison, which were converted to community service work - has finished serving his sentence.” Thus, with considerable bureaucratic tardiness, the period in which I paid my debt to Israeli society ended.
Something about the expression “sentenced to community service work” makes it sound like it’s not serious. Not a true punishment, more like a slap on the wrist, a don’t-do-that-again, and then home. When I signed off on the plea bargain, I didn’t know that this would be my punishment - it’s obviously preferable to jail. It was clear to me that community service work is in fact a punishment and not a do-as-you-wish project; but still, during my months at the old-age home I felt that the goal was to demean me. I thought that was a mistake.
At Merkaz Avivim I understood that this period can be exploited to the greater satisfaction of all the parties involved. In retrospect, I think consideration should be given to introducing rehabilitation into community service work - at present it does not exist. Before concluding my community service work, I told myself that I would certainly return to Merkaz Avivim as a volunteer and lead discussions about current events. The staff was skeptical when I told them. “The community service workers always say they will do that, but it doesn’t happen,” they said. They were right. I suppose that even though the experience was ultimately a positive one, the fact that I spent many hours there as a punishment keeps me from returning voluntarily as a free individual.
The public’s right to know
Following the refusal of the Israel Prison Service and the Social Affairs Ministry to provide a list of the institutions which employ convicted individuals as community service workers, Haaretz petitioned the Administrative Affairs Court last year. The IPS claimed that “revealing the details of the employers is liable, heaven forbid, to bring pressure to bear on these bodies to employ specific community service workers, with all that entails and implies, including the use of threats, offers of bribes and so forth ... In addition, we note that there is no small number of [such] employers, many of whom prefer to preserve their privacy and anonymity.”
For its part, the Social Affairs Ministry argued that “every infringement of the institutions’ readiness [to hire such individuals] is liable to adversely affect the very possibility of meting out punishment in the form of community service work, and thereby increase overcrowding in the prisons and the cost of punishment to taxpayers. The ensuing damage would also be harmful to the convicts’ rehabilitation prospects and would increase the rate of recidivism.”
Judge Ilan Shiloh rejected these arguments, writing in his decision, “The right to receive and to make public information that is in the possession of the authorities in regard to the employment of community service workers and their suitability for the employers - many of which are governmental institutions, the rest being public institutions - is especially important for the purpose of public review. It is also important so that the public can be informed about the distribution of community service resources among the different employers.”
Shiloh took the state to task for adopting the “shame” argument put forward by the institutions in question, which on the one hand employ the convicts but then refuse to have their identity made public. “That message injures the society in two aspects,” he wrote. “To begin with, it implies that the state does not believe in the convicts’ ability to be rehabilitated and educated, or at least is doubtful about this. Second, the state supports the approach of the institutions which refuse to have their identity made public, agreeing with their argument that it is not fitting for them to take part in rehabilitation. By this refusal, the state ignores the benefit of the publicity, the possibility afforded to it and to the public to supervise more closely the employee’s suitability vis-a-vis the employer, and the possibility to monitor the benefit that accrues to these institutions in employing community service workers without pay.”
The judge added, “The state did not provide a foundation for the facts it put forward ... The vague concerns expressed by the state about the functioning of the community service network are overridden by the basic principle of freedom of information and the need for public review of the respondents [the IPS and the Social Affairs Ministry] and their activity. And even if it is said that the community service network is liable to be damaged in some way, this is overridden by the right to freedom of information.”
Haaretz was represented by attorneys Tali Lieblich and Nati Chai.
The ‘Margol’ precedent
The Education Ministry terminated its cooperation with the Israel Prison Service about a year ago. One reason was the request by singer Margalit Tzan’ani (popularly known as “Margol”) to do the community service work to which she was sentenced in an ulpana - a girls’ religious school - which is under the ministry’s supervision.
Tzan’ani was sentenced last year to six months of community service after being convicted, in a plea bargain, on charges of extortion and threats. The IPS decided she would serve the sentence in an ulpana affiliated with the national-religious Bnei Akiva movement. However, the Education Ministry objected, and in the end Tzan’ani served her sentence at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. Subsequently, the director general of the Education Ministry, Dalit Stauber, informed Leah Kleiner, the IPS officer in charge of community service work, that the ministry would not accept additional community service workers in its institutions.
“The Ministry of Education believes that community service work should not be allowed in educational institutions,” Stauber wrote. “An educational institution is, as the name suggests, a place that is intended to provide education (and not just knowledge) to its pupils, in part by a personal example set by the teachers and the other staff. There are young children in educational institutions, and our ministry is responsible for their well-being. To this end, we seek to ensure that their learning atmosphere will be suitable and safe, both physically and mentally, and to ascertain that there will be no negative influences of any kind on the pupils in these institutions. In this regard, it is important that the adults in the institutions - whether teachers or administrative staff - are capable of setting a worthy personal example by their behavior. We believe convicted felons do not meet this criterion.”
Stauber added, “We believe that it is not enough that the community service workers are instructed not to come into contact with the children, because this restriction cannot be guaranteed in an educational institution. Furthermore, its practical implication is to limit the children’s ability to move about freely, a situation that is untenable. In light of all the above, I request that you respect this policy of the ministry, and ensure that community service workers are not sent to educational institutions.”
Stauber told Haaretz this week that the subject was raised and the decision made in the wake of a number of requests from district supervisors, who think it is improper to assign community service workers to schools. According to her, the former education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, was involved in the decision and the current minister, Shay Piron, is aware of it. Asked whether the decision is not problematic as an educational declaration per se, Stauber said the subject will come up for discussion again at the start of the coming school year. “There is a request to reconsider, and we will do so ... based on the understanding that rehabilitation is also a value,” she said.
From Cinematheque to burial society
The list of institutions and organizations that employ community service workers is being published in full for the first time here. As of December 2012, there were 380 institutions that accept such workers - i.e., felons sentenced to a prison term of up to six months who do work “for the benefit of the community” in lieu of serving time behind bars, and who are under the responsibility of the Israel Prison Service. There are also about 700 institutions that accept individuals sentenced to punishment that does not involve incarceration - in some cases people without a criminal conviction - who have to work a certain number of hours for the public good. They are under the charge of the adult probation service within the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The current number of community service workers stands at 2,455, of whom 66 are women. Most were sentenced to five to six months of service. A spokesman for the ministry stated that in 2012, orders were issued to 4,233 people who are to serve a specified number of hours for the public good. The full list of institutions was made available to Haaretz in the wake of a court ruling last year (see accompanying box).
“Performing community service work is, in every respect, like serving a prison term; the only difference is in the way it is done,” IPS spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told Haaretz this week. “In contrast to doing time in a correctional facility, a prisoner sentenced to community service work is asked whether he is prepared to assume the burden of responsibility and self-discipline this entails, and he must agree to it. The idea behind service work is enforcement, not therapy, so less emphasis is placed on motivation and more on the ability to do the job.”
According to Weizman, great care is taken not to harm weak population groups in the placement of community service workers: “Naturally, there are more sensitive places, but the other institutions are ‘indifferent’ when it comes to motivation. This is reflected in the consistent ruling by the Supreme Court: ‘Incarceration in the form of service work is not a program of requests, based on the wishes and desires of the individual, who will report for work or absent himself as he pleases. It is proper incarceration.”
According to the IPS, the considerations involved in assigning a convict to a particular place of work are: the request of an institution that states it is in need of service workers; the profile of the service worker, notably the offense of which he was convicted and possible medical incapacity; proximity to the worker’s home; the type of supervision needed for the worker; prior connections between the worker and prospective employer; and the worker’s own wishes.
The list of institutions, which can be seen in full on the Haaretz Hebrew website, is extremely varied. It includes rehabilitative institutions, museums, community centers, memorial sites, old-age homes, cultural institutions (such as the Tel Aviv Cinematheque), zoological gardens, performance venues, the Hevra Kadisha burial society and many others.
A spokesman for the IPS told Haaretz this week that the list remains largely unchanged since last December, apart from the removal of Education Ministry institutions (see accompanying box). In addition, for various reasons community service workers are no longer employed by the following institutions: the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv, Tsahalon (Dajani) Hospital in Jaffa, the Lod municipality (veterinary unit) and the National Security Council in Glilot.
At the same time, new places have opened up at police stations, old-age day-care centers, religious councils, municipalities (cemeteries), community centers and soup kitchens.