In a talk with Arutz Sheva, Rabbi of the prison service Rabbi Yehuda Weisner described preparations underway for the Passover holiday in Israeli prisons, where prisoners are soon to sit down to the Passover eve “seder” ceremony without friends and under lock and key - as they try to feel like free men in the spirit of the holiday.
“Operation Passover” for the prison service began already the day after the Purim holiday a month ago. Rabbi Weisner described the complicated logistical preparations and brought up the fact that the prisoners cannot buy special products for Passover aside from those given as options at the “canteen,” therefore it is the responsibility of the rabbis of the prison service to supply matzah, wine, haroset and the like for the seder and the days of Passover that follow.
“Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - there are a large number of prisoners who keep the Torah and its commandments. I am happy that I can provide service, unfortunately it is in this sad situation behind the walls of the jail,” Rabbi Weisner said.
The military rabbinate has reservists and “hesder” soldiers helping them make IDF kitchens kosher for Passover and leading the Passover seder. What happens in the prison service?
“We, the rabbis, do it, with the prisoners and also with non-Jews certified to do the work. All the canteens are made kosher. We distributed a ton of hand-made matzah, and for tonight we are preparing some 2,000 seder plates. Yeshiva students come to lead the seders. The prison service sets aside a budget for haredim and national religious who come and lead the seders in the different branches.”
What special requests have you encountered on the last days before Passover?
“There were prisoners who requested special matzot, there were those who couldn’t give up on the gefilte fish. Things which to Jews on the outside look trivial, inside the jail are a lot more complicated. Remember - the prison service forbids bringing in food from the outside, so we provide for everybody.”
Rabbi Weisner, formerly the Rabbi of Central Command, said that “during holidays its very hard on the spirit to be in jail, and during Passover it is doubly hard. During the holiday of freedom you’re sitting in jail and your children and family aren’t with you. It’s a very hard situation.
“I see the people preparing themselves for the seder, and you can see their tears, there’s a lot of sorrow, and we explain to them that man is always in the midst of a test. There’s no choice, you have to get through this situation, it has a price and if you don’t work on yourself and undergo a process of physical and spiritual repair, then apparently you’ll be stuck in the same place and the lemon will still be sour. I tell prisoners that a man is in the place where his thoughts are, so you think good - the lemon will become lemonade,” Rabbi Weisner said, testifying that “many prisoners want with all their hearts to start on a new path.”
When you sit with prisoners and talk with them, what do you tell them to encourage them?
“Everything is a function of trust in the Creator of the World and of Man. Every man falls. If you really believe that man can change his ways, there is a good chance that he can gather the strength to set out on a new path. If, as a society, we don’t believe this, then there’s no chance. He’ll get out of jail, and the next day the society that brought him in will push him out, and the whole process we went through with him will disappear.”
Around the seder table, prisoners succeed in being happy?
“I think that there is some sadness somewhere at the bottom of their hearts. Some of them show it more, but I believe that most of the people try to say ‘if we’re already here, let’s make it nice and not cause ourselves to fall’ It really works differently for each individual.
“Without connection to Passover, we have 1,200 prisoner studying in the Torah halls, we have treatment frameworks in the spirit of Torah and we have integrated treatment frameworks - Torah combined with work, and we, the prison service, give the prisoners all the tools to be happy and to succeed.”