LIGHTING UP THE DARK CORRIDORS OF PRISON
May 1, 2016
Nosson Avrohom in #1018, Feature, Pesach, Shlichus

Every morning, Rabbi Lior Rosenbaum works behind bars in the Oholei Kedar Detention Center as the rabbi of the facility. He helps, guides, and is mekarev the people who were just arrested. For the holiday of cheirus-freedom, Beis Moshiach went behind bars for a fascinating talk with R’ Rosenbaum about his work.

Photos by Yisroel BlesofskyOver sixty-five years, he was in and out of jail. Throughout this time, he tried, with the support of professional help, friends and family, to leave crime and start life anew, but in vain. Every time he was released, he was arrested again a few months later and put back in jail.

“A few years ago, he was arrested for the thirteenth time and sent to the Oholei Kedar Detention Center where I work as the rabbi,” recalls R’ Lior Rosenbaum.

“I run a special program called Midrasha, which is for frum people and those who want to become frum. This man wanted to join the program. The professional staff expressed their doubts but I insisted and he was approved. Before I accepted him I told him the rules. He promised to abide by them, but on the very first day he failed and was expelled. A few weeks later he asked again and I, who believe you cannot give up on any Jew, agreed. He failed again.”

When he asked for a third chance a few months later, R’ Rosenbaum had to use all his charm and powers of persuasion with the administration who finally gave their approval. “This time, I promise to change,” he said, and he was told the rules once again about getting up on time, proper behavior, cooperation, etc. He promised, although nobody believed he would succeed. The man worked hard and this time he succeeded. He obeyed the rules and changed.

“It was moving to see how a person that nobody had faith in, changed before our eyes. Before he was released from jail, there was an award ceremony attended by the warden in charge of the facility, Mrs. Rena Harel, who gave him a certificate of excellence. When he received it, he burst into tears and said he had never gotten a certificate of achievement before. That was moving but what was even more moving, in my opinion, was that the man was never arrested again. I later heard that both he and his son became baalei t’shuva.”

This story, perhaps, sums up R’ Rosenbaum’s work over the past decade in the prison services. “I am here on the basis of the eternally optimistic standard which does not give up on anyone,” he smiles but then sighs. That sigh gives voice to the hard work that he and his fellow prison rabbis do to help inmates. They work under R’ Yehuda Yekusiel Weisner, the Chief Chaplain of the Prison Services.

As we celebrate the Z’man Cheiruseinu – Time of our Freedom, we wanted to hear from R’ Rosenbaum about how shibud (enslavement) and cheirus look from the perspective of a prison chaplain.

SUDDEN LIFE CHANGE

R’ Rosenbaum grew up in a religious Zionist family in Petach Tikva and attended yeshiva. He was known among his friends as a good boy, but someone who had his own views and did not automatically go with the flow. Where he saw that something needed to be done, he took charge. “Taking a stand for justice burned within me since I was a young child. I could not tolerate injustice and hypocrisy.”

After a difficult army service, he wanted time off from the intensity of life and began working at a construction company. “My job was to raise cinder blocks from the bottom floor to the fourth floor. I would show up for work in the morning, turn on music on my CD player, and listen while I worked. For about a year it was me, G-d, and the blocks. During this period I had time to think about life, about my purpose in the world, and what it meant to be a Jew. After a while, I began working with an independent contractor. That lasted a while until I concluded that a Jew needs to use his head too, and not just his hands.”

Lior left the construction business and began studying to be a building engineer. When he finished, quite successfully, he was hired by Korem Construction where he was promoted until he became assistant manager for projects.

“I had to manage large projects around the country. I was no longer working with my hands and I had tremendous responsibility. I was happy with my position as well as with the salary. I had everything. I felt on top of the world. I had a nice car, a great job, and more. It was then, when I felt I had it all, with a dream job that anybody my age would have wanted, that I began to feel a tremendous emptiness. Whenever I attended a wedding of friends, I would ask myself whether my future lay in a life of work. Then I began to feel that I missed yeshiva. 

“In my first stage of spiritual fortification, I would listen to recordings of shiurim of various rabbis of the fire and brimstone persuasion.”

Still, Lior always knew that the go-to place for Judaism is a Chabad House. When he moved to Rosh HaAyin he went to the Chabad House run by R’ Binyamin Akiva.

“I remember how R’ Akiva spoke matter of factly about the Rebbe being chai v’kayam and Moshiach. I found it strange but his saying it so matter-of-factly made me receptive to it. I started attending the shiurim given at the Chabad House.

“From R’ Akiva I first heard about the depth in Chassidic teachings and the greatness of the Rebbe. I was astonished by this and drank it in.”

After a while, Lior decided he wanted to know more. He wanted to study Chassidus in depth. “R’ Akiva said, ‘Lior, the time has come for you to go to yeshiva.’ He recommended the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas.”

To the astonishment of his friends, Lior told his boss that he was leaving and he went to Tzfas. He was accepted in the yeshiva but it wasn’t easy. “For the first six months I had to move from room to room every week. I did not have a bed assigned to me.” Despite this hardship, he stayed on.

He describes the yeshiva in Tzfas as a hothouse, which set the foundation for all the blessed work he does now.

Later on he went to Yerushalayim and attended the Chabad yeshiva at the Gutnick Center where he studied for smicha. He continued learning in R’ Meir Aharon’s yeshiva in Rechovot. At a certain point he returned to Rosh HaAyin where he was asked to run a shul in the Givat Tal neighborhood.

“I became rabbi of a fledgling community about a year before I married. I used the new position to spread Torah and Chassidus. One of the things I started was a community Melaveh Malka every Motzaei Shabbos. We started with four people and within a short time there were dozens of attendees. My mashpia at the time was R’ Reuven Dunin a”h who urged me to complete my rabbinic studies while still doing my shlichus work. I thought spreading the wellsprings was more important, but he told me I’d give the Rebbe more nachas if I completed my smicha studies.”

He earned his smicha from Heichal Shlomo and even received certification as “Rabbi of a city.”

A PHONE CALL THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE

At this point, a significant change in his life occurred when he received a phone call from the Chief Chaplain of the Prison Services, R’ Yehuda Yekusiel Weisner, who invited him for a job interview. It seems R’ Weisner had found a resume that Lior sent two years earlier to the prison chaplaincy. 

He took the job and in the early years he worked at Eshel Prison. A while later he moved to the Oholei Kedar facility, at which time the Rosenbaum family moved to Beer Sheva.

The basic job description of a prison chaplain is to take care of all religious services for prisoners, like arranging shiurim, procuring siddurim, Chumashim, providing a Torah scroll, seeing to t’fillos on a regular basis, kosher food, etc. But R’ Rosenbaum would not stop with just that.

In his first year on the job he came up with the Midrasha idea. He prepared a program and ironclad rules.

“Most people who arrive here are bewildered, adrift and confused. Their uncertainty is tremendous. Their psychological mooring is undermined and I wanted to help with precisely that. I was happy when the prison administration cooperated. We have room for ten people in the Midrasha. When people are physically together it unites them and makes them a sort of community. They get up early in the morning, daven and learn, and at twelve they go to work in a tzitzis factory until 3:45 when they return to the facility for supper, t’fillos, and shiurim. They don’t have downtime. It’s amazing. The getting up in the morning and having what to do, having structure and meaning, is the basis for a well lived life.”

In addition to the Midrasha, the inmates can arrange to meet with the rabbi to talk to him privately and get support for whatever they need. R’ Rosenbaum also gives shiurim on timely matters.

“I learn Torah with them. I choose topics from which I can derive therapeutic lessons. Whatever I teach must be practical and relevant to them. The three books I wrote came about from the shiurim I gave in prison, classes that start with deep, abstract ideas and end with practical tips.

“I also saw that people have trouble controlling their angry feelings and I started giving classes and workshops on this topic and later published a book on it.”

Do you keep tabs on inmates after they are released and monitor that the change that started with you continues?

One of the most important things we do in the rehabilitation process is trust in the inmates and their ability to change. First we have to sincerely believe and only then can we convey that to them in words and actions. When you work effectively you see inmates changing from one extreme to another. You definitely do not always see success, but someone who has already entered the program and succeeded in it is very likely to succeed further.

We had an inmate who was in for murder. At a certain point he came to our Midrasha and made great progress. In the next stage he was sent to a Torah based rehab center and did well. He was eventually released from jail after they took off a third of his sentence for good behavior. He had been an infamous character in the world of crime and now he is completely different. I have many stories like this.

We had an inmate who was sent to prison again and again. One day he asked me if he could be in the shomer Shabbos cell block. He promised that he wanted to change but told me that he has a hard time getting up before ten in the morning. I agreed to work with him if he demonstrated his willingness to cooperate. I agreed that he could show up later, but he had to try to integrate into the program as much as possible. After two weeks I met with him and told him, “You did fine thus far and now you no longer have the privilege of coming late. You need to show up at eight.” It was hard for him but he did it. He changed a lot and left prison and hasn’t returned.

What is your biggest challenge?

In the course of my work I become privy to the horrendous things people went through. In many instances you see that people are victims of life circumstances, and if only one part of their puzzle would have been different, they would have been in a completely different place. Most of the inmates experienced troubles or violence in their childhood and chose the wrong path. You cannot ignore the hardships they went through, but the challenge is not to give up on anyone and to try and help them choose a different path.

There was an inmate who, I am sorry to say, I was somewhat revolted by. He was a violent, aggressive young man and my natural inclination was to keep my distance. One time, he was punished by me and he asked to speak to me. He told me his life story and he cried. He said how his father came home drunk every night and would beat him while he slept, and one time his father even tried burying him alive. This stopped when neighbors became aware of it and reported his father to the social services. The boy was then taken out of his father’s home and was put up for adoption.

When I heard his story I felt compassion for him. No wonder the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya that compassion leads to love. I began looking at him completely differently after that. That story shook me up.

There were other stories that I heard, worse and more horrifying than these. There were stories that kept me up at night. The challenge with these walking tragedies is enormous. Our job is to love, hug, and give a lot of warmth. All this is the antidote to all the suffering of the inmates.

HANGING OUT WITH
THOSE ON THE FRINGE

R’ Rosenbaum speaks of a relatively smooth transition to this difficult demanding job, but it turns out he already had experience in work of this kind.

“When I studied construction engineering in Tel Aviv, gangs of criminal kids would hang around near the school. They grew up in difficult circumstances and I would talk to them and listen to them. Also, when I learned in the kollel in Ratzon Yehuda we reached out to youth from a school whose population included new immigrants. Due to the many acts of violence, the Education Ministry planned on closing the school. We worked with those kids.

“I was always drawn to working with people down on their luck. Even when I served as rav of the shul in Rosh HaAyin, we started a special shiur in a nearby neighborhood for kids. I soon realized that they weren’t regular kids but were borderline criminals. We put a lot of work into them. Before every shiur we would buy refreshments. We started the first shiur with two kids and at the party we held at the end of the year we had 150! We were even recognized by the municipality and its leaders, and by the rabbis of the city. I was pleased when most of the boys got hold of themselves and left crime; some even established fine homes.”

 

What is it like for someone who is incarcerated?

Unlike prison, a detention center is a place they are sent to before trial. It’s the first stop, which is why they are in shock. You have to understand that most of the people lived a nice life and then did something illegal, whether accidentally or deliberately, and were arrested. People in this situation can react in one of two ways, either turn inward in their confused state or be agitated.

My job as the facility chaplain is to help them structure their day and learn a lot of Torah. The Baal Shem Tov states that a person thinks one thought at a time and it can be positive or negative. We work to expel the negative thoughts by engaging the mind with positive and spiritual thoughts.

 

Are there differences in the reactions and behavior between those who are religious and those who are not?

I never thought about that. A human being is a human being. There are people who are outwardly tougher by nature and those who are weaker and more sensitive. For some, this is not their first arrest and they are less frightened, and there are those for whom this is their first arrest and they are terrified.

Have you ever met a prisoner who you felt could not be rehabilitated?

I am a big believer in everyone being capable of change. I don’t just believe it; I know it for certain for I have seen people in very bad situations who ended up leading good lives. I’ve met people who never worked in their lives, who stole, and here they underwent a rehabilitation program. They began getting up early in the morning, they went to work, cooperated, and behaved well.

Real t’shuva is not about changing external garments, getting rid of the ponytail and earrings and putting on a hat and jacket. The real change takes work, a change in habits, doing the work yourself, changing patterns of behavior. In the years I’ve worked in prisons, I’ve see many inmates, including those that nobody believed in, and they didn’t believe in themselves either, and they made major changes in themselves and their lives.

BEING FREE EVEN IN JAIL

Can a person in prison, bound by the rules and constrictions of jail, feel free on Pesach?

It says in the Chumash, “To Me are the Jewish people slaves.” In many shiurim that I give the inmates, I expand on this point, that there can be a prisoner behind bars, yet who is free, by being faithful to the rehab program, cooperating and moving in a positive direction. And there can be a person at home, seemingly free, but living a constrained life, a prisoner of his bad habits. Being a slave or a free man depends on your inner state.

Prison is a place of darkness. Does the light of the Geula manage to penetrate the prison walls and bars?

The entire world is heading toward the revelation of Moshiach. It is specifically in prison that we experience and see the greatest descent and we know that it is all by way of preparation for the Geula. Evil is so apparent and in such an aggressive and defiant manner, which are its greatest powers, and we can only go to the Geula from here. I speak a lot to the inmates and within the walls of prison there is great belief in the coming of Moshiach.

Many of the inmates write to the Rebbe and see miracles in their personal lives. Just recently an inmate asked me to write to the Rebbe for him about a complicated operation he had to undergo. He opened to a blessing and he told me later that the operation was very successful. We had a religious guy who wrote to the Rebbe about his spiritual descent. The Rebbe’s answer was addressed to someone who had committed himself to many fasts and the Rebbe instructed him to stop.

I asked him about fasts and he said he fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, and being hungry causes him to get angry and nervous and then he listens to his yetzer ha’ra. I told him what the Rebbe said. In general I spoke to him about the approach of Chassidus and he was willing to stop fasting. Since then, his spiritual state has stabilized and he thanked me for it many times.

THE PLACE SUFFUSED WITH TEARS

After a two hour interview in his office, R’ Lior Rosenbaum was rushing back to the long corridors where the clanging of bars and gates are the regular background music.


“This place where I sit,” he says pointing at his office, “is a sacred place.”

When I looked surprised he explained.

“The famous rabbi of the prisoners, Rabbi Aryeh Levin z”l, once told his grandson, ‘Why do they come to me? Because I’m a tzaddik? There are bigger tzaddikim than me. Because I’m a chacham? There are bigger chachomim than me. Because I’m clever? There are people more clever than me. They come to me for one reason only; I listen to whoever turns to me and I experience his pain.’ 

“When I sit in my office every evening after endless appointments with inmates, I make a cheshbon ha’nefesh (spiritual accounting) about whether I felt the heart of every person. I think that the fact that the walls of my office are suffused with tears, emotions, feelings, and the experiences of Jews, makes the place a holy one.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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