Rabbis, Jewish community leaders, chaplains, justice ministers, prison officials, jurists and lawyers from 62 countries across Europe concluded a three-day discussion on how to improve services for Jewish prisoners.

Organized jointly by the European Aleph Institute, a humanitarian organization that caters to the needs of Jewish prisoners and their families, and the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands, the May 17-19 European Chaplains Conference took the group on tours of two Dutch prisons.

“The responsibility to fulfill prisoners’ basic rights falls on each and every country,” said Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levy Itzhak Kanelsky, director of Aleph. “This includes the responsibility to grant full freedom of religion, [which will help achieve] full rehabilitation among prisoners.”

A prime topic at the conference, which was held in Noordwijkerhout in western Holland, was the efficacy of religious exploration at combating recidivism. There are currently about 3,500 Jewish inmates in European prisons, which offer mixed data on the reconviction rates of released prisoners. The European Society of Criminology, for instance, reported in 2006 that the Netherlands had some of the highest recidivism rates in all of Europe – from 1996 to 1999, 55.5 percent of released convicts were back behind bars two years after their release – while recidivism was particularly low in Switzerland.

Rabbi Yossi Ives, a trained life coach and former pulpit rabbi, unveiled a new Aleph initiative in having chaplains instill life-skills like time-management among prison populations.

“Coaching is about teaching prisoners to take charge of their lives,” he said.

Another project will see a more-coordinated focus on inculcating Jewish social values “to prevent and deal with crimes before they happen,” added Ives, who was a prison chaplain in England for two years before joining Aleph.

To help in that effort, conference organizers unveiled new booklets on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot to hand out to prisoners. Written in English, French, Russian, Dutch and German, the publications feature inspiring stories, a digest of Shavuot customs and an exploration of the Ten Commandments as the foundation of public and private morality.

The conference was held in Noordwijkerhout in western Holland.
The conference was held in Noordwijkerhout in western Holland.

Changing the System

During a two-hour boat ride to two prisons in Alphen aan de Rijn in southern Holland, participants listed to a panel discussion on “the role of the rabbi in providing hope, a listening ear, and a link to the community; and encouraging spiritual development and growth.”

Such a charge is a tall order, admitted Rabbi Menachem Hadad of Brussels, noting that different prison regulations can hamper what a chaplain can accomplish from within an institution’s walls.

“I go visit inmates and I try to bring them whatever is possible,” said Hadad, director of the Chabad Center for Students in Brussels, “but there is nothing that I can leave with them [according to prison rules].”

The rabbi must also be specifically requested by inmates, so in between visits he keeps up contact by exchanging letters. After a few letters, a prisoner will ask out of the blue for Hadad to come.

“I never ask them why they request me,” said the rabbi. “It’s just important that they need a connection. It’s a delicate situation in prison. No one should ever know what it’s like.”

During his visits, Hadad brings tefillin, coins and a charity box so that the prisoners he meets have the opportunity to do something Jewish.

According to Ives, some prisons can be very accommodating: Most prisoners who keep kosher can ask to be transferred to a facility in Antwerp where kosher food is readily available. Other places, though, have a decidedly different approach.

“Some prisons are very grim and pretty horrendous, even in sophisticated countries,” said Ives. In one prison in Britain, prisoners are “dehumanized and not given intervention they need to turn their lives around.

“As expected,” he added, “they came back to prison.”

Part of the conference’s agenda was focused on prison authorities, with organizers demonstrating the role that religion can play in prisoners’ rehabilitation and eventual reentry into society.

An Aleph video screened by participants told the story of a Jewish inmate in Germany who was at first prevented by prison staff from donning tefillin. When he was finally able to pray with the sacred items, he said, it was a life-changing experience.

Rabbi Yitzchok Huisman, chief rabbi of prisons in Holland, said that there are many similar stories out there. One person, he knows, began keeping Shabbat behind bars at the encouragement of his chaplain.

After “a lot of talking and help,” said Huisman, a member of Aleph’s rabbinical council, the man is now living a normal life on the outside.

Huisman hopes that one of the outgrowth’s of the dialogue between chaplains and prison officials is an expansion of the time allotted to chaplains to interact with prisoners.

“We don’t have so many opportunities to really sit down and learn together,” said the rabbi, holding up the Israeli penal system as a model in providing religious opportunities to inmates. “Learning Torah together is one of their best connections with Judaism.

“What we want is to get 10 to 15 Jews together and make something like a yeshiva in prison,” added Huisman. “We have so much more work to do.”