“Aaron Goldberg”—not his real name—was an infamous gang leader who was feared on the tough streets of South Tel Aviv. By the time Aaron was twelve years old, he already had a vicious and bloody history along with a lengthy arrest record. When he reached adulthood, he was known by the nickname “Rotzeach” (Murderer in Hebrew).
Then one day his life changed forever.
It happened when “Aaron Goldberg” was hit by a Volvo near Dizengoff Street while he was writing graffiti on a building. The impact of the accident thrust Aaron into unconsciousness. He remained in a coma for nearly two months. When the Israeli gangster awoke from his coma, he was a changed man. His entire memory of being a criminal was completely erased.
This former criminal took on the innocence of a small child. Aaron no longer engaged in crime or thug life. Instead, Aaron Goldberg began to spend his days and evenings playing with Barbie dolls, hand puppets, Lego building sets, and other toys. The unfortunate car accident returned this one-time criminal to the innocence of a baby.
What can Israeli society learn from Aaron Goldberg’s remarkable transformation from sociopath to loving tenderness?
When I viewed Aaron playing with his Barbie dolls, I was inspired with a new and creative idea to help transform the hearts of hardened criminals. I began to ask myself if childlike games and play therapy can help to heal Israeli society from criminality. In the United States, for example, the crime statistics are staggering and dramatic.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2018, an estimated 1,163,146 violent crimes occurred nationwide. Aggravated assaults accounted for 62.3 percent of violent crimes reported to law enforcement in 2013. Robbery offenses accounted for 29.7 percent of violent crime offenses; rape (legacy definition) accounted for 6.9 percent; and murder accounted for 1.2 percent. Although the FBI states that crime is on the decline, these statistics indicate that violent crime is still a major problem in the United States.
In Israel, crime problems include drug trafficking, arms trafficking, domestic violence, burglary, car theft, and human trafficking.
As an American and Israeli, I ask myself the following poignant questions: What if arresting and incarcerating people is not the most effective way to reduce crime? What if “play therapy” and “doll therapy” are helpful approaches to reducing anger, lowering criminal intent, and healing the hearts of so-called gangsters and thugs?
In 1985, Dr Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D. started a company called Childswork/Childsplay to publish therapeutic board games, card games, puzzles, and therapy boards. These tools, along with dolls and doll houses, are used by many psychotherapists to help resolve both intrapersonal and interpersonal issues affecting their clients.
Since I lived in the Ramat Amidar ghetto near the city of B’nai Brak, I know firsthand the terror, pain, desperation, and extreme poverty faced by millions of struggling Israelis. I also know that arresting and incarcerating a person does not heal the heart and soul of the person. In fact, quite often Israeli prison inmates learn to become better criminals while they are locked away in prison. Too much of the focus of the prison system is on punishment rather than rehabilitation and creating moral citizens.
Perhaps play therapy is one of the solutions to the Israeli crime issue. According to the Association of Play Therapy, there is a profound value in play and play therapy when practiced effectively with proper training, research, and support.
Instead of simply putting more Israelis in prison, perhaps we can use proven methods such as play therapy to heal the minds of repeat criminal offenders. Potential offenders can act out their anger issues using toys rather than by committing dangerous crimes.
Jewish scripture says, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” (You shall pursue justice). Perhaps innovative approaches are needed to increase public safety, justice, and peace in Israel.
Imagine an Israeli society in which we focus on healing rather than punishing. Imagine if prison wardens were to distribute free, life-like dolls to each inmate in each Israeli prison. Imagine rehabilitating gang members rather than relegating them to the shadows of the underclass.
In a Knesset speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said, “We shall build a state of Israel based upon peace and security.”
Although many of us fear crime, we must heal criminals in order to build security in Israel. We can use play therapy in order to change the minds and hearts of those people who live on the margins of Israeli society. In this way, we can reduce crime by creating compassion, kindness, and good citizenship.
Utilizing play therapy and doll therapy we will transform Israel into a land flowing with sweet milk and honey.