Rabbi Elazar…encountered a very ugly man… and said to him, “How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you?” The man answered, “I don’t know, but go tell the artist who made me what an ugly vessel He created.” Rabbi Elazar …prostrated himself before the man and begged for forgiveness.
-Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 20a-b (for whole story and context, read more)

A few weeks ago I got a call from a social worker, a relative of a friend, who works in an Israeli prison; she called to ask me if I would volunteer to give a class in the context of the “Tolerance Week” being held in the prison, in observance of Yitzchak Rabin memorial day (a common theme in schools and other institutions around that day). She was particularly interested in the topic of Jews and Arabs, as the prison population is mixed. I said yes, then hung up and wondered why; I have no experience with prison chaplaincy – indeed I’d never been in a prison – and I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare. One idea I had, which the social worker liked, was to show a film clip of the Jewish-Arab youth circus and have a discussion about how common challenges can break down barriers. Fortunately I had other ideas in reserve, because when I got there there was no functioning DVD player. I also prepared the story quoted above, which deals with themes of stereotyping, acceptance of the other, authority, repentance, forgiving, and pride – all in a story with just three characters and a donkey, with a simple plot but layers of possible understandings. And as backup, I read up on Muzafer Sherif’s famous “Robbers’ Cave” experiment from the 50s, which I thought would make for an interesting conversation.

Behind bars It turned out that the prison was actually a regional jail; i.e., not a facility for long-term incarceration, but one for holding men who are in various stages of processing and trial in the court system, from the north of the country. Thus, the population is not stable, with residency ranging from days to months. Some are innocent, some are guilty – of offenses minor to major. The population, like that of the Galilee, is about half Arab and half Jewish. Eight men in a cell, meals eaten in the cells, two exercise walks a day, everyone in civilian clothes. Because of the high turnover, there is not a serious work or education program, but various short-term activities and classes. The social worker commented that it is mostly the Arabs who opt to participate in these, for reasons she hasn’t figured out. And indeed, after she went around cell to cell and invited the men to a “lecture on acceptance of the Other,” the little classroom filled up with 15 Arabs and one Jew in the first cell block; in a session in a second cell block the ratio among the participants was about 2:1.

As the men settled in their seats I was thinking, am I really about to teach Talmud to Arabs in prison? Not the rabbinate I had prepared for. We did introductions, and it turned out that most of the men were from towns and villages not far from Shorashim, including several that I frequently visit. Neighbors. They loved the story, and had a lot to say about it as we went through it step by step. The discussion (in Hebrew, of course) was lively, the collective unpacking of the characters and themes of the story was thoughtful, and its relevance to everyday interpersonal relations as well as to larger social themes was clear to them with no prompting. We all had a good time.

In one group we had a few minutes left and I presented the Robbers’ Cave results (an experiment at a summer camp, showing that the best means for defusing intergroup conflict is a common challenge). The men agreed, and suggested that the difficult challenge of living in a prison forced the Jews and Arabs to stick together and get along. Not sure where to go with that metaphor.

In any case, I told the social worker I’d be happy to come again.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!