Keren Hateshuva's Jerusalem program is generously supported by the
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation
From a deep and dark pit, to the peaks of existence
A Story of a Rabbi
For 15 years he counseled the residents of the Beit Avraham hostel. His clients were people who had gone through hell; they were the dregs of society, unable to adhere to normative, positive behavior. And yet –they wanted to change themselves, to turn over a new page, to once again be accepted as contributing members of society.
Professionals in the field of criminal rehabilitation, intimately familiar with the emotional odyssey that each ex- offender undertakes, acknowledge that not everyone is suited to this type of work. The work requires conscious relationship –building with people whose entire worlds were constructed from criminal perspectives, where drugs were the only psycho –emotional outlet for their frustrations, whose lexicon- both in and out of prison – was dominated by violence… These were people making their first hesitant steps into a Torah lifestyle, fighting their evil inclinations and previous routines every inch of the way. They needed someone with the strongest of personalities, someone who himself had overcome the enticement of criminal life, the scars, the difficulties, the momentary crises and despair, someone who could share his unlimited faith in this type of mission.
Rabbi Gadi Bardana seemed to fit the mission perfectly. When he counseled the hostel residents in their long rehabilitative process, he was not speaking theoretically. He knew precisely what the no –mans land looked like. After all, he had traversed it himself. He knew the lie of the land, every fold and rise along the way. And above all, he was living proof that one could successfully repent, that one could accept the responsibilities of a religious life, in concert with the rehabilitative program. One could improve one’s self-image, organize one’s life and empower oneself to succeed in life. Just by being there in the hostel, he exuded a ray of hope and represented a role model for the residents.
King of the Heap
Prior to taking up the position of head counselor at the hostel, he had paid his debt to society by serving a seven- year prison sentence. At age 18 he began his adventure with drugs. After being indicted and sentenced for weapons possession, drug dealing, theft and breaking and entering, he served time in the Shatta, Ramle and Ma’asiyahu prisons. He reflects on how violent he was, how influenced he became by his criminal lifestyle, how he had spurned honest people, how his deepest desire was to graduate into the super- criminal league, where at long last, he would be paid he respect he deserved. “When you’re in that world, you need to feel that you’re the top dog, and that the police are public enemy number one.”
Ironically, his prison stay gave him the opportunity to pause and examine his situation. Realizing that he could indeed change his ways, he began the arduous path of repentance, took upon himself to observe practical mitzvoth. It was by no means easy, as he reflected during the interview conducted by Bar Ilan criminologist, Dr. Uri Timor: “While in prison I decided to stop any more criminal activity. But upon my release, I soon slipped back into my old thinking format. Non –prison society is built on a network of interests, and when you’re released from prison, you could quite easily fall, because no –one really wants to help you -and then things really begin to collapse. I was shocked. It dawned on me that if I didn’t change, I was going to stumble and fall once again. I knew that I needed to take drastic steps; I joined study sessions and through these, connected with Rabbi Avraham Hazan and continued thereafter to the Kaf Hachaim yeshiva.”
“At the yeshiva,” continued Gadi, “I found twenty pairs of hands reaching out to help me connect to that grain of goodness inside every one of us. Initially, I continued to use drugs while at the yeshiva, but over time I understood that this was yet another counterfeit lifestyle option – and so I stopped. When one studies Talmud, you find your self in another world. The Torah teaches one how to live correctly.”
In retrospect “, says Rabbi Bendana, “ a rehabilitative process based on Torah values causes some difficulty that is absent from other rehabilitative frameworks. In addition to disconnecting from criminal behavior patterns, from warped values, from a criminal mentality, from a degrading way of thinking and talking, the entire repentance process is a major shift in one’s life, that involves many difficulties, even for someone who has not experienced prison life.”
His yeshiva studies helped him to empathize with the hostel residents, and help them in turn deal with their challenges. He describes the transformational process that ex- offenders who choose a Torah lifestyle and cut off their use of drugs, encounter: “Torah is the true elixir of life. I found that I really don’t need to depend on drugs; I can substitute that high for a Torah- based one. In the same way that a non- drug user can't grasp the terror of withdrawing from drugs, so someone whose entire being is enthralled in a criminal life, cannot grasp the intensity of a religious experience. It’s like having a supreme power watch over you as you progress and rise higher spiritually, as you study each day, you are filled with immense satisfaction”.
Awakening the Spark
All of the heads of yeshivot in which Gadi studied acknowledged his tremendous powers of study. They described him as exceptionally bright, able to study for hours across a spectrum of subjects as he rose higher and higher in knowledge and spiritually. After a decade of study, Gadi was ordained by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Given his unique life experience, having observed Rabbi Avraham Hazan’s methodology so closely, Gadi translated all of his accumulated expertise into his work on behalf of Keren Hatshuva. Building on the Keren’s mentoring process that impacted his spiritual and physical rehabilitation, he was transformed into the spiritual leader of the hostel’s residents, while rebuilding his own family.
Rabbi Gadi Bendana’s story is a witness to the effectiveness of Keren Hatshuva’s programs in raising participants up from the deepest of spiritual pits to the pinnacle of success