Keren Hateshuva's Jerusalem program is generously supported by the
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation
Keren Hatshuva –
A Story of Success
KEREN HATSHUVA HOLDS WORLD RECORD FOR
REHABILITATING FORMER CRIMINALS – 92%
By Yinon Avisar, Hatzofe newspaper
Keren Hatshuva is a non –profit organization involved in rehabilitating ex- convicts and directing their energies towards a Torah lifestyle. Throughout the organization’s existence, it has demonstrated miraculous achievements in rehabilitating drug users and other types of criminals - murderers, rapists, robbers and thieves. And yet, the Keren cannot realize its full potential due to budgetary cutbacks. The price of neglecting this need will ultimately be paid by all of Israeli society.
Keren Hatshuva is the kind of organization which if it did not exist, would have had to be invented. It is the only organization since its inception in 1972, which operates continuously in rehabilitating criminals and returning them to normative social behavior in Israeli society. Keren Hatshuva is aptly named – it literally returns wayward criminals back into an open society, to their families, to their people and to their State.
And yet, despite the Keren’s expertise and long- running track record of success, the organization remains largely a well-kept secret. In the final analysis, it is good to know that there are organizations dedicated to improving the social health in of Israeli society, and to reducing the extent of criminal activity. On the other hand, the official institutions and government agencies that collaborate with the Keren in its critical work, who are aware how relevant the Keren’s approach is for cracking the vicious circle of criminal behavior, enthusiastically endorse its work – either financially or morally. These latter institutions and agencies know that it is far cheaper for society to rehabilitate an ex- convict and to return him to normative behavior, than to abandon him to the antisocial forces and undercurrents on the streets, with the huge potential of him ending up once again behind bars. For example, the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, recognizing the Keren’s track record, provides an annual
allocation for its programs. These budgets are augmented by private donors in Israel and overseas who are aware of the Keren’s achievements.
“However, “ says Yoel Hazan, the Keren’s Chairman and volunteer director who operates out of a sparsely - furnished tiny apartment in Jerusalem, with no secretary and a half –time social worker, “our challenge is ongoing, with the relevant government ministries constantly cutting back on their allocations. For instance, the PRA recently cut back its support by one – third. Similarly, the ministry of internal security’s allocation has not increased since 2002. Who pays the price? Both the criminals and the wider Israeli society. Given the lack of sufficient funding for us to fully exploit our experience and potential, we are forced to work with fewer clients, resulting in more ex – offenders potentially returning to a life of crime, violence and drugs. Obviously, the ultimate price will have to be paid by Israeli society in its entirety”. And here, Yoel Hazan muses aloud: “Does it not make more sense for Israel to invest in detaching criminals from their former lifestyles rather than having to bear the cost of the long-term damage, the recurring pursuit of these offenders, and the cost of accommodating them in prison?
“It seems that the answers are obvious: Every shekel invested in rehabilitating criminals and returning them to normative behavior saves the State tens – if not hundreds of thousands of shekels. Are there any decision-makers out there who are concerned with the long-term health of Israeli society, or is the concept of long-term planning restricted to the daily newspaper headlines?”
Keren Hatshuva was established in 1972 by the Police Force and Prison Service Chief Chaplain, Rabbi Avraham Hazan. He was interested in creating a voluntary organization that would assist released convicts in their initial steps back into normative society, in order to help them distance themselves from crime- ridden environments. Rabbi Hazan had come to an astounding conclusion, which was proven repeatedly in the field – an ex-offender that returns into normal society in carefully measured stages, infused with a religious lifestyle and values, increases his chances of remaining a productive member of society, contributing to his family and the wider community. It was through this prism that Rabbi Hazan established Keren Hatshuva. He received the support of all the ministers of police during the period of his public service – Haim Bar Lev, Shlomo Hillel and Tzachi Hanegbi.
After his retirement from public service in 1992, Rabbi Hazan continued to lead the Keren’s programs until 2000, when he handed over management to his son Yoel. Despite having the unenviable task of managing the Keren through turbulent funding periods, Yoel is encouraged by the support he receives from his active volunteer board members who willingly contribute both valuable time and money, to further the Keren’s programs. The Keren enjoys the unqualified support of the Israel Prisons Service (IPS). In research conducted in 1999, results showed that 92% of all the Keren’s clients stayed out of prison. This finding has astounding significance: The average recidivism rate hovers at around 67%, compared to an 8% rate for the Keren’s clients. In another research effort, undertaken by Dr Uri Timor, a criminologist at Bar Ilan University, he found the Keren’s performance far outstripped any other comparable rehabilitation program, over the course of a decade. He noted that in terms of Keren Hatshuva’s achievements, the actual situation in the field – beyond the sample of respondents he interviewed –is most likely even more optimistic.
Make no mistake, this situation is exceptional. There is simply no other rehabilitative framework, either in Israel or overseas that comes close to the Keren’s track record. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, if the Keren did not exist, we would find a need to invent it. Fortunately, it continues to operate since 1972, and has, to its credit, nurtured many upright citizens committed to a Torah-infused lifestyle, including rabbis and heads of yeshivot, who would prefer to forget that in the distant past, they were involved in murder, robbery, theft and drug-dealing. This is truly an unbelievable fact!
What’s the Keren Secret of Success?
The Keren’s Chairperson notes that the organization operates several programs, but the most important realm lies in locating the potential candidates for rehabilitation, while they are still in prison. The Keren is empowered by the IPS staff to design an appropriately tailored rehabilitative and therapeutic program for each offender. Upon their release from prison, the candidates benefit not only from an extensive sojourn at the Keren’s halfway house hostel, but from a range of services that include locating jobs and even professional retraining, and emergency dental care. The Keren even tries to assist its clients to get married, and provides funding to offset the costs of family celebrations – especially new-born babies. In certain cases, the Keren finds its clients longer –term accommodation, after the maximum nine – month halfway house stay, in order to ensure that they stay far away from any crime- ridden neighborhoods where they might potentially slip back into their former ways. The Keren’s safety net continues well after the formal support period, extending into providing special monetary gifts prior to the major festivals, and offering alumni and their families a spectrum of positive recreational programs. All these efforts are invested to maximize the bonding experience between clients and the Keren’s staff and volunteers –to provide a sense of family that compensates for the long periods behind lock and key in their former lives.
However, the Keren’s flagship project is the Beit Avraham halfway house hostel, located in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood. The hostel is home for the first nine months of the ex- offenders newly acquired freedom. It offers both single and married men a supportive environment, within a rehabilitative and therapeutic setting. Here they have the opportunity to create their own unique community, distanced from their organic families and former dangerous neighborhoods. The hostel staff cares for all their material and emotional needs – from guiding them back into normative work routines in collaboration with a network of friendly Jerusalem employers, through religious and ethical study sessions that reinforce their newly- committed torah life. The former convicts – “residents” in the eyes of the Keren - manage all aspects of daily life at the hostel, including cooking, cleaning, laundry and maintenance. The hostel’s genial manager, Rabbi Arye Shraga oversees the daily schedule with characteristically firm, but warm, guidance. Rabbi Shraga, a certified psychologist, also conducts three weekly therapeutic sessions, dealing with rehabilitation from violence and crime, anger control, etc.
In previous years, when budget allowed, the Keren was able to organize professional training courses for its residents, on –site at the hostel. These included certification as Torah scribes, kashrut supervisors, metalwork, etc.
It goes without saying that living at the hostel is completely voluntary, with residents free to come and go as they please. Nevertheless, the staff emphasizes the need for residents’ self discipline. Residents go out to work every morning; in most cases, the jobs that the Keren locates for them are physically very demanding. They return towards evening, tired but fulfilled. Evenings are filled with sessions and workshops devoted to readjusting to normal life, dealing with substance abuse and dependency, interpersonal relationships from a religious perspective, prayer and Torah study.
We went to visit the hostel, and found it in spotless condition. The bedrooms offer comfortable furnishings and linen, and public spaces were colorfully decorated. The hostel contains prayer and study rooms, a large dining room, kitchen and laundry, playroom and patio.
Our core challenge lies in the fact that the maximum residential period allowed by the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, is 12 months. From the Keren’s perspective and experience, at least two years’ residency is required, in order to complete a holistic rehabilitation process. The PRA policy allows only for nine months, perhaps due to their chronic budgetary shortfalls. It claims that thereafter, the ex- offenders can be reintegrated into the wider community. This obviously raises the danger that the residents could slip back into a life of crime.
The result is that in any cases where a longer stay at the hostel is required, the Keren has to bear the full cost of such a stay – a burden which affects other aspects of the Keren’s work.
Notes Yoel Hazan, “The bottom line, as in most organizational work, lies in our funding ability and capacity to responds to the ever- increasing needs. In this context, the continuously declining government support places an ever-increasing burden on raising funds from private donors and foundations.
“The limited capacity of the hostel means that every year the Keren is forced to turn away numerous potential ex offenders. The hostel is able to accommodate only 20 residents at any one time, with many other ex- offenders having to find alternative rehabilitative frameworks. The Keren has the wherewithal to expand its work, but limited funding prevents critical outreach needs.”
Those fortunate residents who participate in the entire rehabilitative process spare no words of thanks and appreciation to the Keren. For instance, Moshe, aged 55, a veteran offender who shared with the Bar Ilan University researchers his thoughts, said “Keren Hatshuva saved my life.” Michael, aged 38, added that the hostel had similarly saved his life. “Without the hostel experience, I don’t know where I would be today. It gave me a critical life vest in transitioning into the real world.”
Leonid recalls that the moment he left prison he threw away his telephone number booklet. He totally cut himself off from his previous world. “I want to complete my stay here at the hostel successfully, find proper work, and learn a profession, to raise a normal family, to live an ethical life and contribute to my community.”
The Keren invests substantial resources in caring for and supporting the residents’ families – especially their children. It regularly distributes care packages, free clothing and shoes, organizes summer camps, and pays for school needs at the beginning of the year. In this, it receives funding from a French pro -Israel activist organization,
The chronic funding crunch has forced the Keren recently to close down its drug rehabilitation day care center. This center was unique, catering to the needs of addicts within the orthodox and ultra-orthodox sectors. Yoel Hazan notes that the drug scourge had managed to penetrate even into these two sectors of Israeli society –especially in the smaller remote communities in Judea and Samaria. The only organization working actively to deal with this crisis is Keren Hatshuva.
” The center operated from 2000 until 2006, ultimately having to close its doors after the welfare authorities forgot how critical the center was in dealing with the drug menace amongst these addicts. What a pity it is that the cost will have to be borne by the entire Israeli society, and that save for a little foresight and some modest budgets, the Keren would have been able to continue its life-saving work. I really do not want to attack the misguided policies of the authorities”, says Yoel Hazan, “But it seems that we are talking about a completely irresponsible attitude. It seems to border on a deliberate attempt to ignore the needs of the religious sectors, and allow the problem to fester…”
And so we have an absurd situation where there is across the board appreciation and recognition of the important and successful work that the Keren is doing, and yet there is no comparable funding support. And despite our goodwill, we are not able to fully exploit our potential to turn around the dozens of ex offenders who reach out to us each year in the hope of being able to once again lead productive lives- due to our funding limitations.