Speaking at a youth prison
February 24, 2019
by LIOR ZOREF @lior
Last week was my first time in an active prison. A prison for teenage boys.
“Ofek” prison is the only facility in Israel for boys aged 14 to 18 who were sentenced to imprisonment, usually for violent offenses, drugs and so on.
After I founded a non-profit for youth at risk, I was invited to give a lecture to boys inside the prison.
“Did you bring a USB drive and a presentation remote control?” The guard asked me at the gate.
“Yes”, I replied .
Take them with you, but always keep an eye on them. Turn off your phone and give it to me, then you’re welcome to come in.
Youth prison is a very special place, built with the purpose of adapting to the needs of kids.
At its center is a school with classrooms, teachers and a complete education program developed by the Ministry of Education.
“In this classroom you can see 8 students. The teacher has a panic alarm button, the class is locked with chains so that no one will enter or leave without a permit, and there’s a warden in every class.”
Despite the bars, chains and locks, they boys go through a complete school routine. They are tested like all kids in regular education programs. They receive diplomas and there is also preparation for matriculation for those who succeed.
“Come and see our petting zoo. We have rabbits, hamsters, chickens, and you can also pet a ferret and feel how pleasant it is.” Animal care allows them to practice responsibility in a different atmosphere, so I learned.
At the entrance to one of the wings is another guard. I gave him my hand and got a bracelet: “Now you have an all-inclusive entry.” He smiled.
The warden asked if she could introduce one of the boys. “Want to tell about your dream?” she asked him and smiled as if she’s his mother. “My dream is to be a psychologist and to take care of youth while never returning here.” He smiled back at her lovingly. His friends peered curiously behind the bars.
“I’m here to help boys who found themselves behind bars, that’s my mission,” said one of the guards, as one of the boys passed by and said loudly, “You are the number 1 warden here!”
I was invited into a small theater and prepared for the lecture. “The boys will enter shortly, they will sit in the front, the guards and the teachers in the back, and one guard will stand on the stage.”
I have delivered thousands of lectures in my lifetime all over the world. I thought I knew all kinds of audiences until I got to jail.
I started to speak. They listened and behaved perfectly.
Then one of them looked at my picture as a child with classmates and asked, “Did that boy give you a slap?”
I never noticed this part of the picture …
I replied, “I do not remember exactly what happened when this picture was taken, but I could certainly have been slapped because I got that a lot when I was at school.”
I told them about the bullying I experienced, how after 30 years my old friend found me and asked for forgiveness. I hoped that if someone hurt them, they would ask for forgiveness. And if they hurt someone, I hoped that one day they too would ask forgiveness. I talked about those who told me “nothing will come of you.” I told them that no one has the right to tell them that. We talked about grit, willpower, perseverance, chutzpah, determination and success.
They listened, laughed and asked great questions. “What is a PhD?” They asked me to tell them about our dog. And asked how many stamps I have on my passport? “A lot” I replied.
In the photo: The school principal, Ilan Deutsch. An inspiring educator.
Boys get into prison by a judge’s order. The educational team choose to come with a great sense of mission. This makes all interactions so special and powerful.
At the end of the lecture there were children who came to shake hands and say thank you with an embarrassed smile. One said it was a very important lecture for him.
When I went outside, the weather had changed. Strong winds and it started raining. Not only had the weather changed, but so had I.
Such a powerful experience.
I was invited to speak at this prison following the creation of the non-profit venture to empower youth at risk. I am happy that the venture is gaining momentum beyond anything I ever imagined. Over 100 volunteer speakers, dozens of schools and boarding schools were registered to take part in the activity.
We started a pilot in two schools with classes for youth at risk. Each class will have one speaker every week, and will give feedback at the end of each lecture. Their feedback, combined with teachers’ feedback, will create this venture’s future.
Thanks to everyone who volunteered to take part in making this dream come true.