Days of Awe Give Israeli Inmates the Chance to Feel Like Everyone Else

One is a brutal murderer, another stabbed his ex’s new partner, while another sexually assaulted dozens of children. But for the Jewish High Holy Days, the inmates of Ayalon Prison swap bars for shofars and seek forgiveness.

Yair Ettinger
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An inmate at Ayalon Prison blows the shofar during the penitential prayers ahead of the Jewish High Holy Days.
An inmate at Ayalon Prison blows the shofar during the penitential prayers ahead of the Jewish High Holy Days.Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger

The holy ark and its cover, wooden benches and lights; Chabad literature; pictures of esteemed rabbis Ovadia Yosef, the Baba Sali and the Lubavitcher rebbe; and a memorial candle flickering in the corner, in remembrance of a righteous person or maybe just an unknown person.

It’s easy to think of this as just another small synagogue or neighborhood shtiebel — one of the hundreds you can find all over Israel. Except for the loud bangs you hear every other minute from a heavy metal door slamming somewhere, and the fact the worshippers are all wearing orange uniforms.

The location is a hall at the far end of the yard of Wing 5 at Ayalon Prison, Ramle. The hall serves as the synagogue for the inmates, and hand-cut letters from colorful paper are pasted on the western wall opposite the ark. “The study hall of free men,” they pronounce, stating the hall’s unofficial name.

Every day at 3:30 P.M., when it’s still light outside, the prisoners gather to say the traditional penitential prayers (Selihot) recited every day before the High Holy Days, until the eve of Yom Kippur.

The saying of the penitential prayers blurs the line between a convicted criminal and everyone else, says prisoner A., because during the High Holy Days all Jews are “criminals.” Also, at the beginning of Yom Kippur, before the Kol Nidre prayer, we ask permission to pray with the “wrongdoers.”

“What we say here are general Selihot — even if you did or didn’t do [the crime] — and it’s no different than any other person,” A. told Haaretz last week. “It is you facing God.”

Inmates praying during the Selihot at Ayalon Prison, Ramle.Credit: Emil Salman

The traditional time for Selihot is during the “morning watch” (the last third of the night), when it is said that God’s mercy awakens. In the neighboring “Torah wing,” the prisoners wake up very early so they can start prayers at exactly 5 A.M., when it’s still dark outside.

This wing for religious prisoners has enough inmates to be divided into two groups: one saying Selihot according to the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) custom; the other, larger, group following the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African) tradition.

But in the other prison wings, heavenly mercy runs on an alternative schedule: Selihot, with the blowing of the shofar, are said in the afternoon in order to improve the chances of getting a minyan of 10 men (after the workday in the kitchen and workshops ends).

Last Tuesday, 12 or 13 men participated — out of about 80 on the wing — and the prison’s deputy rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Brod, and his assistant joined them.

Dressed in a white shirt and standing in the center of the synagogue, the rabbi chants the penitential prayers, “I will acknowledge minor and severe wrongdoings.” And the orange-clad congregation chants after him, “In the day I will call and raise my voice over my crimes and offenses, and shall not remain silent at night.”

G. is one of the prisoners praying. He has been on Wing 5 for four years and still has another seven years of his sentence to run. “There’s a good feeling here; in the synagogue you feel ‘outside,’” he says. As a convicted criminal, he often has to deal with his past as part of his intensive rehabilitation program, and he feels Selihot have a special value. “Even the rabbis say that the prayers of prisoners are better. We call out from the depths,” he says, quoting Psalms.

An inmate praying in the synagogue at Ayalon Prison, Ramle.Credit: Emil Salman

“While saying Selihot I ask Him for mercy, and I say it from the heart,” G. adds. “I think about how not to come back here, and ask forgiveness from both the creator and also the people I hurt.”

True meaning of ‘penitence’

S., an older prisoner with a white kippa on his head, listens from the side. He didn’t intend to be interviewed and didn’t come to the communal prayer service. He prays by himself every day in the yard, across from the entrance to the synagogue, but never enters. With the perspective of 15 years in prison, 14 on this wing, he has solid reasons. “There are times for prayer and every time has its own virtue,” he says. “Selihot must be said in the morning.

“There was a time when we had 131 people in this wing. Thirty to 40 would come to Selihot. We would wake up during the month of Elul at 5 A.M.,” S. recalls, adding, “Today, there’s no minyan, which is one of the reasons they made it later. This is the Achilles’ heel of the minyan. During that period, we would do it every day after the morning head count; we would come down and there was a real significance to the word ‘penitence.’ It was never a religious wing, but people came,” he says.

But the size of the congregation is not the real issue for S. He tries not to mix too much with the wing’s inmates at any time of year — and certainly not in the synagogue. “There’s a problem with the type of offenses for which people are here,” he explains. There used to be a high percentage of inmates serving time for murder and drugs-related offenses, he says, “with sex crimes a very small percentage. Now, sex crimes are a very high percentage.” He says it’d be difficult for him to face these criminals, whom he often scorns verbally: “It’s impossible: a sex crime is egotistical behavior, exploitation and it’s disgusting.”

The conflict with sex offenders escalated when a group of prisoners informed the then-prison rabbi that they didn’t want him to summon sex offenders up during the reading of the Torah. “Today, sex crimes are the majority here, so they’re called up to the Torah, they give them roles [in the synagogue], everything,” says S. “The problem with them is that they never show remorse for what they did. Either they always say ‘He’s guilty, she’s guilty, she tempted me,’ or they say ‘I’m sick.’ Excuse me, you’re sick? So let’s castrate you, what’s the big deal?”

An inmate at Ayalon Prison clutching a shofar.Credit: Emil Salman

The conversations all took place in the yard of Wing 5. An Israel Prison Service representative asked the prisoners who agreed to be interviewed not to provide details about their crimes, and they obeyed. So I held short conversations, one after another, about Elul and the coming Jewish holiday season with various men, whose orange uniforms made them blur into one in my mind.

It was only after leaving the wing and conducting a quick Google search that I filled in the blanks: One of the men stabbed and murdered the new partner of his ex-girlfriend, and also wounded her. Another brutally murdered a few relatives. A third, the righteous sexton who devotedly takes care of the synagogue, sexually assaulted dozens of young children in the community where he lived. There was an unpalatable gap between the ordinary people I thought I’d met and the acts the old news articles reported.

S. notes that he committed his offense around this time of the year, so it’s always a difficult period for him (“Always pain, always sorrow”). With the synagogue or without, religion and tradition play an important role in his life. He also knows he’s not expected to be released anytime soon.

“In prison, religion is a very important tool in order to preserve your individuality,” he says. “It gives you time in the morning, afternoon and evening. There is also Shabbat, and it determines when you say kiddush and when the Shabbat meal is. In prison, one day follows the next, everything is the same; the head count is always at the same times of day. So a person makes the changes for himself, provides his own color, and religion is important for a lot of people. They spend Shabbat here; they spend holidays here. Whoever doesn’t do it has a problem, in my opinion.”

Like the other wings in Ayalon Prison, Wing 5 is for prisoners serving long sentences — murderers and sex offenders. But the Prison Service optimistically considers the inmates here to be “integrated into society” and drug free. These prisoners are considered to have a “chance for a future,” so the idea of repentance is used on the prisoners here 365 days a year, even if the IPS terminology is entirely that of psychotherapy and treatments.

The synagogue, meanwhile, is the beating heart of the wing. It offers humane surroundings — as well as the chance of forgiveness.