My visit to Pittsburgh last week

I’m sharing this with supporters I believe are Jewish. It’s long-ish, but I hope you will indulge me with five minutes. It’s Christmas eve — what else do we have to do tonight? ;-)

We all get upset every time we hear about another mass shooting in the United States (and elsewhere, of course), but the shootings by a nazi-wanna-be at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October hit home with me in a much deeper way. I’m sure that was true for you, too.

No, I didn’t know any of the victims personally, but Tree of Life is not only Jewish. It is a Conservative shul much like the one I grew up in. Rabbi Myers attended JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary in America) with the Cantor of the Shul I grew up in, Cantor Jack Chomsky, and JTS is where my mom graduated from. That could have been my shul, and when she attends, my mom is among the early birds. Much more than in the usual random “mass-shooting-of-the-week,” that could have been my mom among the victims. It could have been any one of us.

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Logo on a kippah for sale in Pittsburgh.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel with Cantor Chomsky and leaders from Central Ohio’s Muslim community in a visit with Jews and Muslims in Pittsburgh. Nothing like this has happened previously so far — the visit came about only because of the close relationship between Cantor Chomsky and Rabbis Myers & Gibson in Pittsburgh, who have known each other for decades. It was moving, loving, and eye opening. I’ve never been in a Mosque at prayer time before, and I’ll never forget watching as our Muslim friends removed their shoes and knelt to say their noon prayers outside the sanctuary at Temple Sinai synagogue just after we all arrived from Columbus. (See my photos and videos from the trip here at Temple Sinai, here at Tree of Life and here at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.)

Rabbi Myers is still processing and will be for quite some time. His building is still closed. I’m quoted in the coverage last week by the Pittsburgh paper, and today the Columbus Dispatch published this. I went with no agenda other than to be present, however in a private moment I was able to convey to Rabbi Myers an offer of support based on what I know from working with many murder victim family members who understand that vengeance is never the answer. I shared greetings from my friend Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr., the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches and also a murder victim family member with whom I work to improve services for homicide survivors in Ohio.

But really, my visit to Pittsburgh happened much earlier.

The shootings happened on a Saturday. The following Tuesday as I drove downtown to a hearing at the Ohio Statehouse on our bill to prohibit executions of defendants with severe mental illness, I heard an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition with Rabbi Myers, who was on the Bima when the shooting started. I remember only a voice of compassion still deep in the fog of the trauma he and his community have survived. However, that afternoon on another NPR program I heard an interview with another Pittsburgh Rabbi. He was associated with the Aleph Institute, an Orthodox Chabad entity that provides outreach and services to Jews in prison.

The interview was mostly a perspective piece about how the broader community was faring. The Rabbi shared his painful conversation with his young daughter. And then he was asked if the shooter should get the death penalty. I perked up, expecting an appropriate pivot from such a baiting question. Instead I was shocked when this Rabbi, a man who who both works with prisoners and who understands Halacha, said “It’s justified to put this individual to death as soon as possible.” I remember shouting at the radio, “What!? You know better than that!”

Just then my phone rang. It was my wife, who had just heard the same thing. For a time, Beth had served as executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, and she’s an expert of sorts at dealing with post-trauma issues. We talked it through and concluded that he must have been speaking from his pain, because even someone who knows the basics of Jewish law and the death penalty would know that this shooter would be ineligible on multiple issues. First in my mind was the rule that a killer must be clearly warned ahead of time that if he commits murder he could be executed.

I waited a respectable amount of time before I got on the phone with a friend who lives in Pittsburgh. I explained my concern and asked if he knew who this Rabbi was. He did, and he agreed to go see him to share our concerns. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rabbi Vogel reacted out of pain & regrets it.

Friend, this is my work. So much of what I do you will never hear about. In fact, I’ve been at the heart of Jewish organizing against the death penalty for years. I coordinated work with Rabbis who helped abolish the death penalty in New Jersey in 2007, Illinois in 2011 and Maryland in 2013. [More super-interesting behind the scenes work that I can’t talk about yet].

I wanted to share all of this with you because I knew you would be interested in both the Tree of Life visit, and the interest we share in stopping executions. As you know, there is always a call for executions after terrible tragedies like what happened in Pittsburgh, and in this case it was by the president himself!

Right now is a critical moment in the movement to end executions. We’ve been successful at lowering and keeping the pace of executions, new death sentences and even capital indictments at the lowest levels in decades. Public support for executions is at its lowest level in 40 years. Washington State just became the 20th state to abandon the death penalty, and several other states are poised to join that list. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. We are winning!

Despite all of that success, foundation funding for our movement is pulling away to broader criminal justice reform efforts, leaving death penalty abolitionists to depend even more on individuals committed to this issue. (I’d be happy to elaborate on the phone — call me toll free at 800 and 973 and 6548.)

Scott Langley and I launched Death Penalty Action almost two years ago, when we recognized the fact that no other national anti-death penalty organization stands ready to jump into the mix on short notice, lifting up organizing and direct action anywhere in the country. We’ve built a track record of successful action in Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, DC and elsewhere. Because of you and with your support, Death Penalty Action is nimble enough to turn on a dime and take action wherever and whenever it will make a difference.

Scott and I were inspired to create Death Penalty Action just about the time that Donald Trump was inaugurated. Our first motivation was to be ready for the moment when federal executions might resume. We have confronted President Trump’s calls for increased use of the death penalty, but amazingly (or perhaps not?), he has not (yet) backed his bluster with an order to set execution dates for federal prisoners. If and when he does, Death Penalty Action has the experience and wherewithal to lead that fight. Scott and I led the protests at the federal prison in Terre Haute when Timothy McVeigh was executed and in many other places before and since then. We’re ready to support death penalty opponents anywhere in the country, and we can only do so because of support from friends like you.

Friend, I invite you to join a growing network of monthly donors giving Death Penalty Action dependable resources with which we can plan. We thank you for your trust and investment. And I invite you to think about who else you might know who would join you in this effort, and to invite them to do so. Whether it is a one-time gift or a monthly commitment, the more we have, the more we will do to stop executions once and for all.

Here is the link. Please make your investment today, and please also invite friends to check the box at the bottom of the form to “set it and forget it” to make a gift recur weekly, monthly or quarterly. Yes, Death Penalty Action is a 501c3. We also accept funds via Paypal and in the postal mail at PO Box 89, Ghent, NY 12075.

Together we will make the difference to stop executions throughout the United States! Thank you. We wish you and yours a happy holiday season and all the best in 2019.

— abe

Abraham J. Bonowitz
Co-Director/Co-Founder
Death Penalty Action
abe [at] DeathPenaltyAction.org
@abrahambonowitz
@DeathPenaltyAct

PS: Make your year-end gift now using this link, and if so inclined, please “set it and forget it” by checking the box at the bottom of the form to make your gift automatic every month.

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Death Penalty Action provides high visibility resources, leadership and support in order to stop executions.

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