Rabbi Avraham Hazan
Rabbi Hazan – The Pioneer of Prisoner Rehabilitation in Israel
Rabbi Avraham Hazan began his career as a chaplain in the Israel Police Force and Prison Service in 1969, a year after immigrating with his family to Israel. In France, he had served as the Rabbi of the Sephardic community in Strasbourg, in parallel with his serving as a military chaplain in the French army’s eastern district.
Rabbi Hazan conditioned his acceptance of the position, on the Police and Prison Service allowing him to make far –reaching changes in his mandate. He was not prepared to restrict his professional responsibilities to kashrut supervision – the reality of the job in those days – preferring instead to gradually upgrade and widen his job description to include a spectrum of chaplaincy – related assignments. When he began working, the entire Police and Prison rabbinate numbered one rabbi and a small number of kashrut supervisors; upon his retirement 22 years later Rabbi Hazan’s staff included 25 local – level rabbis, including 12 prison rabbis and 20 part-time educators. In addition, he developed several district offices.
Within a short time of assuming his position, he came to the understanding of the essence of his professional mission – criminal rehabilitation, based on Torah values. He often quoted the verse from Psalm 91: “… I am with him in distress, I will release him and honor him…” as his motivating vision. In his conversations with prison inmates, who often expressed regret for their actions and their desire to repent, he understood the need to respond to this drive by developing a comprehensive program that would channel any positive energy and prevent the prisoners from accumulating any further frustration. What was needed was a mechanism that would disengage these offenders from their criminal surroundings and enable them to realize their wish to change. At the same time the program would need to ensure that prisoners would not, at any stage, potentially slip back into using drugs or resume their criminal activity.
The Silver Bullet: Rehabilitation
Rabbi Hazan embarked on a number of pioneering initiatives whose effects are felt until today, both within the Israel Prison Service environment, the Prison Service Rabbinate and various prisoner rehabilitative frameworks, especially the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority.
His credo is reflected in the ongoing work of Keren Hatshuva.
The following are some of his most important innovations:
• Promulgation of the law to establish the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority.
The PRA was a uniquely pioneering enterprise, from its inception. Prior to its establishment, very little thought or resources had been invested in attempts at rehabilitating convicts after their release from prison. Avraham Hoffman, the PRA’s founding director, noted, seven years after Rabbi Hazan’s passing, that “Rabbi Hazan really was the first to understand the need for such frameworks. Unfortunately, he was up against a prison system that did not take easily to change, and this meant that he had an uphill battle in advocating for a different approach. Nevertheless, his patience and determination, coupled with his glowing personality, helped him to melt many bureaucratic hearts.” And as Rabbi Hazan in his memoirs noted, “ The PRA arose thanks to pressure which I applied through minister Uzan … to get the Knesset to pass the Prisoner Rehabilitation Bill, legislating the establishment of the PRA. I personally organized the required lobby in the Knesset to ensure that the law was passed.”
Upon the establishment of the PRA, Rabbi Hazan was nominated to its national committee.
• SHAKED- Religious Rehabilitation
A system offering convicts the option of rehabilitation through studying Torah and mitzvah observance, while still in prison. This program is conducted in a supportive atmosphere which tries to separate the participants as much as possible from the negative influences of daily prison life, and offers them an alternative for personal growth.
• Torah Study Frameworks within Prisons
A daily study framework that emphasizes the social mitzvot, between man and his fellow, and ethical self-improvement. By 2005, some 600 convicts were participating in this program annually.
• Shomer Mitzvot Sections
These are special prison wings for inmates wishing to observe mitzvot. They are drug –free and offer a daily routine based on a religious lifestyle, combined with part-time work. As of 2005, some 709 men were participating in this program.
• Keren Hatshuva
The establishment of the Keren upgraded and completed Rabbi Hazan’s Jewishly-driven rehabilitative perspective. He held that in order to minimize the potential for recidivism, the rehabilitative process needs to include components that resonate with convicts’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs simultaneously. In response, he established the Keren Hatshuva non-profit organization, raised money from amongst his contacts in the French Jewish community and thereafter in Israel in order to ensure that released convicts would be able to continue their Torah studies and take care of their physical needs, supported by the Keren. The Keren’s help was utilized in supporting these convicts’ families in the difficult initial stage of readjusting to normative society. It committed itself to assist the released convict in finding work or job retraining, getting married, accommodation and furniture. It saw as necessary the need for long –term support, sometimes for several years- this in order to strengthen the social and economic safety nets so vital for ensuring each client’s success in once again becoming a productive member of society.
• Keren Hatshuva’s Halfway House Hostel
A residential framework, offering a spectrum of therapeutic techniques for drug addicts, integrated with a Torah study and a religious lifestyle. The hostel would also offer job- seeking services, allowing for a continuum of treatments coupled with personal and Jewish growth.
Rabbi Hazan nurtured his baby, Keren Hatshuva literally until his last days in this world. He ensured a smooth continuation of its vital services by transferring responsibility for its management to his son, Yoel. The Keren continues his holy work- modestly and discreetly, with no other agenda except to help society’s most unfortunates. Since its inception, the Keren has helped more than 800 ex- offenders, the vast majority of whom lead productive and normal family lives, with some of them going on to become major spiritual leaders in Israeli society.