He went to Israel for a yeshiva experience, he never expected to experience the inside of an Israeli prison
By Chandrea Serebro
Imagine a yeshiva bochur. He is a good boy in Israel learning for the year. He is not yet 18 years old. He has no money, no family in Israel, and he is just trying to enjoy the experience, despite being a bit homesick. One day, in the middle of a gemara shiur, his rabbi calls him out of the class. Outside waiting for him, he finds the Mishtara, the Israeli Police, ready with restraints to take him away. As if in a bad dream, he finds himself next in the police station near Ben Yehuda Street and King George Street, right in the middle of a place he knows well, a tourist destination he has loved since his youth, a place which has now, suddenly, taken on a completely different and sinister feel, as his head spins trying to understand what’s happening.
There, he is questioned. And questioned again, the police trying to get as much information out of him as possible, as he bewilderedly mumbles his way through the interrogation. The police keep at him until they feel that he won’t give them what they want, and then send him off to jail. “I was utterly shocked. I went into auto-pilot mode, going through the motions while they processed me as if I was a doll. I was numb to my surroundings, but inside, I was grappling with the darkness that was quickly engulfing me, trying my best to make sense of the madness that was going on around me.”
It all points back to him
Rewind a few weeks earlier. There is our yeshiva bochur, we’ll call him Avi (not his real name), in yeshiva in Jerusalem after finishing high school only a few weeks ago, staying in a somewhat shoddy yeshiva residence, the only bochur with a balcony that faces out of the yeshiva grounds, offering privacy and a chance to escape the eagle eyes of the austere Rabbonim and all those there. And boys, being boys, gather every night on this balcony, some with a beer or two and others enjoying things altogether less legal. Avi finds himself at the centre of the schmooze, not in small part because his room offers a chance to let one’s hair down, have a drink, a smoke, and a laugh. And being the nice, well-mannered guy that he is, he finds himself helping people out wherever he can, to the point where he becomes the go-between for the rest of the boys there. This one gives him money to buy the goods from that one, who knows someone, who knows someone, who can get goods.
And suddenly, without realising it, Avi’s innocence and generosity facilitate a steady supply of drugs to willing participants. “I realise know how naïve I was, enjoying the crowd in my room, the puff or two that I got for free because I helped everyone else along and they were all being generous back to me. An unwitting drug dealer, without even realising it, never making a single cent out of it, but for all intents and purposes, guilty as sin.”
When the Mishtara raided the yeshiva, they did a sweep of all the yeshiva boys who were involved in the nightly schmoozes, questioning each one of them to find the source of the supply. And the common name that came out of everyone’s mouth was always: Avi.
Into the pit
“I was immediately taken to jail in Jerusalem, where I spent my first night.” A night etched in his memory, a night spent underground in solitary confinement “at the bottom of what felt like a thousand stairs”, like Yosef HaTzaddik thrown into the pit, chained down by his hands and feet to the bedposts in a “dark, wet and cold room”, wearing his t-shirt and torn jeans, without a hope in the world. The next morning, Avi had to appear at court and, because he was not yet 18, he was charged as a minor. Bruised and battered from being roughly handled, Avi walked in, his head bowed in shame, utterly embarrassed, confused, and in a state of shock.
“I just remember thinking to myself that I was living the kind of experience that one always hears stories about, wondering to myself, ‘How did this actually happen to me?’ Feeling like the reality I found myself in was totally insane, that it must be a bad dream, a nightmare, that I wasn’t this person who they said I was and wondering how, in all of life’s machinations, I came to be here.”
Because it was a Thursday and there was no court on Friday, Avi soon realised with despair that he would be there, at the very least, until Sunday, and, as the wheels of justice grind even more slowly when you are the one in chains, Avi found himself being moved to a cell in Ramla, locked up with other juveniles who were there because of all kinds of assorted delinquencies.
“Throughout the whole process, I was mainly confounded by the notion that I was in prison in Ramla, embarrassed and ashamed, and of course, scared. Every day began with a bus trip to the courthouse, and every day ended in my cell, dark and alone. I don’t quite know how I survived, but I look back on this time as episodes of memory in which I find flashes of meaning and even inspiration.”
The goodness that lies within every Jew
Avi recalls a fellow inmate who was the son of “The Al Capone of Netanya”, who had killed the man who had murdered his father. Avi had been arrested in the middle of December, the coldest time in Israel, wearing only his t-shirt and ripped jeans, and every morning when he was woken up at 4am to go to court, he was freezing. One morning at the bus stop, ‘Al’s son’ came up to him, took his jersey off his own back, and gave it to Avi, along with a small chocolate and a hint at the goodness that lies within every Jew.
Shabbat in jail was, likewise, a saviour for Avi, a time of spiritual freedom for him and most of the others who were there with him, despite their being confined physically. The prisoners, who couldn’t see one another, huddled behind the slats in their doors, through which the guards pushed the food, singing Shalom Aleichem together, with feeling, unity, and passion. “There was a tangible feeling that, despite the awful, depressing circumstances in which we found ourselves, we were absorbing the Shabbos spirit and the holiness and power of the day. Shabbos came in, freeing our spirit even while we were in a state of physical confinement. A Jew is still a Jew, even behind bars.”
An angel from Hashem
Perhaps the biggest impact on Avi came from his cellmate, a boy named Gavriel ben Mazel. Gavriel gave Avi a book on emunah (faith) along with some chocolates to cheer him up, offering him friendship and a glimpse of hope for his future. “Gavriel’s name was not lost on me – Gavriel, the angel of Israel, and Mazel, meaning luck. We exchanged details and, on my release, I went looking for Gavriel…only to find that no one had ever heard of him, that he seemingly didn’t exist. To this day, I can’t help but believe that Gavriel was sent to me by Hashem, to watch over me and to get me through this incredible nisayon – test.”
On what Avi though was to be his last day in the detention centre, he was awoken in order to go to the courthouse…only to be immediately sent back to Ramla and be loaded onto yet another bus bound not for freedom, as he had expected, but instead for an entirely different jail in Jerusalem. Avi had turned 18 some days before, meaning that he was no longer a juvenile. Instead of things getting better, as they were meant to, they had taken a turn for the worse – much worse; out of the frying pan and into the fire. “Now I was going to be in an actual jail with adult inmates, rather than just in a holding cell in a juvenile detention centre, and I was in a state of absolute terror and panic as a result. I asked Hashem, ‘How did I end up in this situation?’ And I davened with all my heart, saying ‘Please G-d, I am trusting that, when I wake up, You will get me out of this situation.’”
The very next morning, as the guards processed Avi’s move to the adult section of the new prison – “a place where all kinds of scary things happen and where it’s far more dangerous and complicated to be than just in a juvenile holding facility”, and Avi was ready to lose all hope, wondering, “Hashem, what is happening?!”, a police car suddenly pulled up from out of nowhere, and the officers banged on the gate, informing the prison guard that they were to fetch none other than Avi!
“Back to Ramla I went, where, to my utter astonishment and amazement, they took off my ankle cuffs and my handcuffs and let me out the door to go home. Free.” In literally the blink of an eye, Hashem changed everything – although it got much, much darker before the dawn, the dawn still came, as I had ceaselessly hoped and prayed, nonetheless. “For whatever reason, I had to be pushed to the brink and tested like that, with no one else to count on, placing my faith and trust entirely in Hashem.”
From where does my help come?
“The whole experience was terrible. It was dark and scary, incredibly lonely. But there were sparks of kedusha (holiness) throughout the journey, which made it more bearable and helped get me through it, and to help maintain a spark of hope that, at times, all but disappeared.” And the sparks are obvious now. Throughout his time, Avi clung to a verse of Tehillim (Perek 121) that he found engraved on the wall by “someone as scared and lonely as I, using what I can only imagine were his fingernails, desperately clawing out this flicker of hope for salvation that I, and I’m sure all who were imprisoned in that very same cell, clung to like the one who had carved it…and like the one who had originally written it.” It read, ‘From where does my help come?’ (The rest of the verse says: “My help is from Hashem.”) “This was Hashem, just being there with me.” Just like Gavriel ben Mazel had been, and the book that he gave Avi which inspired him to have faith and to daven the heartfelt prayers on the eve of his departure which, no doubt, helped lead to his freedom.
“Throughout this time I had no money, so I couldn’t buy anything while in jail. Two Russian brothers were there, and one day I must have looked particularly low because the one brother handed me some money. His brother was shocked and even a bit angry, and asked him what he was doing and why he was helping me. He answered him in Hebrew: ‘He is a Jew!’ Yes, I am a Jew. And people helped me because of that. I am a Jew, and Shabbos transported me out of the depths. I will never forget how all of the prisoners sang Shalom Aleichem together, with such incredible feeling. I am a Jew, and Hashem supported me on this incredibly dark journey, ultimately freeing me.”
Avi spent 10 days, which felt like 10 years, in jail before he was moved to house arrest and given 100 hours of community service. In spite of the embarrassment that he had caused to his yeshiva, Avi’s rabbi set him up with a religious family with five beautiful boys, who, despite having never met Avi, agreed to help out a fellow Jew, allowing him to spend the duration of his house arrest with them. “We fell in love with each other and I’m still in contact with them every week, staying at them every time I go to Israel and modelling my home and values largely on what I witnessed in their very special home.”
He became known as “the favourite son”, as he had nowhere to go and the parents couldn’t leave him, so he spent many hours speaking with them about life, learning and appreciating their values. Avi would help them prepare Shabbos each week. When he wasn’t busy putting in his community service time at a place called Yad Eliezer, packing parcels for needy families, akin to what Yad Aharon and Michael does here, Avi would help the family in their business.
His time in prison may have only been 10 days, but it was 10 days of pure fear and trepidation, lessons in faith and trust in Hashem, and some serious introspection, a scary time during which sparks of light managed to flicker through the darkness and help keep his faith alive. No one wants to be in prison, but there is certainly something different about being a Jew in prison among other Jews. Even in the darkest of times and the loneliest of places, we can inspire each other – always. On the 97th hour of his community service, the real drug dealer was caught, and Avi was absolved of all crime.