'God Can Judge You Anywhere': Convicts Who Embrace Judaism Less Likely to Return to Crime

A new Israeli study shows that Torah-based rehab halves the rate of recidivism — provided the prisoners stick to religion once they are released

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An observant inmate blows a shofar in the synagogue at Ayalon Prison in Ramle.
An observant inmate blows a shofar in the synagogue at Ayalon Prison in Ramle. Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

“Once I wasn’t afraid, I could bungee jump,” says Gabriel, who became religiously observant while serving time in prison for tax offenses and money laundering.

“Today I understand that God is everywhere in the world. If you do something, he can judge you anywhere. To fear a judge and hide is possible, but it’s impossible to hide from him,” says Gabriel, who attended a Torah-based rehabilitation program after he was released.

An Israeli research study, for which Gabriel was interviewed, shows that criminals who begin to observe the ten commandments in prison and attend a Torah-based rehab program are less likely to return to a life of crime. Only 14 percent of them had returned to crime in the five years of the study, compared to 34 percent of all other prisoners, and 28 percent of released prisoners who participated in other types of rehab programs.

Over the past decade there has been an increasing interest in religion among Jewish prisoners in Israel. Since 2007 the number of batei midrash (Jewish study centers) and religious wings in prisons has doubled, and the number of prisoners in these wings has gone from 126 to 380. Research elsewhere in the world, however, has shown that being exposed to religion in prison doesn’t necessarily prevent a criminal from recidivism after his release. Most of the studies done in the United States and Europe, which dealt primarily with Christianity, show that living in a religious wing helps a prisoner deal with prison life better, but in general it has no influence on the chances of his returning to crime.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Michal Morag and anthropologist Dr. Ellie Timan of the Ruppin Academic Center examined what happened to Jewish Israeli prisoners who chose to remain religious after being released, and found that sticking with a religious lifestyle combined with a structured rehabilitation program helps them avoid recidivism.

Newly religious prisoners in the religious wing of Ayalon Prison in Ramle. Credit: Emil Salman

“A large part of the trend towards repentance in prison is utilitarian,” says Morag. “It’s easier to be religious in prison. Living in the Torah wings is more pleasant — it’s safer because the people are screened and only the less violent prisoners are chosen. Beyond that, there’s a routine that is full of activities. On Shabbat there’s a communal atmosphere and this helps stave off the great loneliness of prison.”

According to Morag, another advantage of the religious wing is the option of praying instead of doing the work imposed on other prisoners. “Not all of them return to religion out of inner motivations.” Morag distinguishes between those who adopt religion in prison and those who choose to live a religious life after being released. “When you commit to maintaining a Torah lifestyle outside as well, the prisoner confronts real conflicts. Suddenly he encounters the environment, which remained secular. It’s then his real coping starts,” says Morag.

Her colleague, Timan, adds, “The studies elsewhere in the world that examined the issue of returning to crime after seeking religion in prison dealt primarily with moving toward evangelical Christianity, and showed that in general, the more participation there was in prison – for example, Bible study or frequently attending Sunday prayers – the recidivism would be delayed more years. But most of the studies indicated that there would be recidivism at some point.”

The Israel Prison Service has no data on the recidivism of prisoners released from the prisons’ religious wings and is conducting its own study on this now. Prison officials, however, disagree with Morag’s claim that people often turn to religion in prison for utilitarian reasons.

“It could be the there are those who put on a kippa [skullcap] when they are arrested to get attention,” says one official. “But a lot of times it only creates antagonism in the judicial system and the costume won’t hold up in prison. A person can’t ‘sort of’ live in the prison’s Torah wing. It means getting up at 6 A.M., not watching television, being without newspapers and having a tight daily schedule. People there study seriously. It’s not a program of electives. There are tests every week and whoever isn’t found suitable is thrown out.”

The study by Morag and Timan, which was published in March in the journal “A Window into the Prison,” looked at 284 former prisoners who all became religious during their incarceration and after release attended a Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority’s Torah rehabilitation program between 2007 and 2012. The researchers examined how many of these prisoners had returned to crime three years after their release and found, as noted, that it was a far lower percentage than other prisoners.

Prisoners are screened for the Torah rehabilitation program. Candidates must be able to work hard and demonstrate a high concentration level. Some are sent to a program that involves integrating into a religious community while others are sent to yeshiva. Until 2015 there was a religious hostel for former prisoners but it closed after a fire.

The community integration program includes private meetings with a social worker and weekly group meetings with other released prisoners. The prisoner commits to attend daily prayers and chooses two Torah classes a week. The rabbis who deliver the classes must inform the rehabilitation authority if the prisoner does not attend.

Under the yeshiva track the former prisoner enrolls in a yeshiva, in addition to having meetings with a social worker and group meetings with other released prisoners.

In order to try to determine what contributed to the success of the prisoners’ rehabilitation, the researchers also interviewed 30 released prisoners who had become religious. They concluded that those in the Torah rehab program acquired tools from both the religious world and the rehab world that helped them cope with the outside world.

“Every prisoner rehab framework is important, but if it has no ethical content you’re simply going to lose the person,” says Avinoam Cohen, the head of rehabilitation for the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. “When a person has consistency and values that don’t change, like a regular schedule – he gets up in the morning, says ‘Modeh Ani’ [the prayer upon arising], ritually washes his hands, and shows gratitude, that’s already a behavioral change through Torah. Becoming religious isn’t the important thing; it’s the change. Suddenly a person decides to observe Shabbat, and sets boundaries for himself. This change is sweeter than honey.”

The study notes that belief in a higher power that directs the world, and as such the criminal’s conduct as well, or the concept of “the watchful eye of God” helps them avoid crime. “When you know that there’s an eye watching you, then he also sees you in secret places, even in the bathroom,” says Simon, who was released after doing time for murder. “Today I know that the only thing that can stop me is God. Even spitting in the street or leaving the bathroom dirty – you can’t fool God,” he adds.

Several prisoners said the kippa and other obvious signs of their new lifestyle choice help to keep them from slipping.

“I could say that the kippa is a symbol for me,” says Shmuel, 35, who served time for drug offenses and violence. “It’s a symbol that I’m a Jew, that it protects my head. It’s on my head to declare that I’m religious; it’s on my head because I respect the divine presence and I know there’s someone above me, always.”

Gabriel says that for him, the kippa was a gatekeeper. “The moment you put on a kippa and tzitzit [ritual fringes] and you have a religious look, you can’t allow yourself to do whatever you feel like doing.”

Says Adam, who was imprisoned for drug offenses, “I know that if I take it off [the kippa] I’ll go back to prison. If you see me without a kippa, know that I’ll go back to doing stupid things. The kippa symbolizes that I’m a human being, that I’m back on track, because if I’m with the kippa I won’t steal because I know it says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Morag and Timan agree that there’s a significant difference between a kippa on one’s head after being arrested or while in prison and a kippa outside prison walls, where the prisoners often feel a responsibility for maintaining the religious community’s good name. “A kippa during rehabilitation turns into a type of electronic handcuff, that protects one from temptation,” says Morag. Some took off the kippa when they considered committing a crime and then said to themselves, ‘Wait, why am I taking off my kippa?’ and they put it back on their head in an effort to restore the boundaries, and not just as a symbol of their commitment to God.

“In prison, they know very well who is in the religious wing because he’s serious and who’s just trying to play the game,” she added. “Outside, on the other hand, there’s a lot of respect in the criminal world for those who return to religion. For some it relieves the pressure from their friends, who say, ‘We understand that you’re elsewhere, we won’t call you when we go on a job.’ And for the criminal himself, it makes it easier to say, ‘I’m off on a new path. Respect it.’”

The research showed that other central factors contributing to the religious prisoners’ success were a decision to distance themselves from their former environment and friends from their crime days, as well as the program at the now-shuttered hostel that gave them a regular schedule along with restrictions, like a ban on carrying cash.

“I started this study from a cynical place, with the same questions we all have when we see a criminal suddenly putting a kippa on his head,” says Morag. “Today I’m a lot less judgmental and think that we can take many tools for rehabilitation programs from the Jewish religion.”

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