(RNS) — A chain-link fence shrouded with a black tarp surrounds the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh these days.
The Jewish community in the city’s east side neighborhood of Squirrel Hill has not yet decided the fate of the building in the wake of the Oct. 27 shooting in which a gunman opened fire as Shabbat services were about to begin, killing 11 worshippers.
Many of the survivors — members of three independent Jewish congregations that met in the synagogue — are still coming to terms with the anti-Semitic rampage, considered the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
But the leader of one of those congregations has already formed an opinion about what he knows will transpire in the coming weeks: a decision by federal prosecutors about whether seek the death penalty in the case. And he wants to prevent it.
To that end, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and his wife, Beth Kissileff, recently penned letters to Attorney General William Barr urging him not to seek the death penalty for Robert Bowers, the alleged gunman.
“We are still attending to our wounds, both physical and emotional, and I don’t want to see them opened any more,” wrote Perlman, 55, rabbi of New Light Congregation. “A drawn out and difficult death penalty trial would be a disaster with witnesses and attorneys dredging up horrifying drama and giving this killer the media attention he does not deserve.”
Bowers pleaded not guilty to a 63-count indictment in U.S. District Court, but one of his lawyers has suggested Barr might offer to forgo a trial in return for a guilty plea if prosecutors drop the death penalty they are now weighing and agree to a sentence of life without parole. On Monday (Aug. 12), prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to a 120-day extension in the case.
To Perlman, a lengthy trial in which the prosecution would highlight Bowers’ documented stream of anti-Jewish invective and conspiracy theories would be too much to bear.
The alleged shooter’s social media activity is rife with tirades against Jews. One post reportedly showed a doctored image of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, in which the motto above the gate reads: “Lies Make Money.”
Another post said: “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”
Perlman argues the community is better off putting this painful episode behind it.
“Some people think I’m doing it because I’m opposed to the death penalty,” he said in a phone interview with Religion News Service. “I am opposed to the death penalty but in this case, it’s very personal. I’m looking out for the welfare of my community. I don’t want to see them re-traumatized.”
A bivocational rabbi who works as a chaplain in the Department of Palliative Care for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as well as leading New Light, Perlman has been doubling up on his grief work — attending to the dying in the hospital and to the families of three New Light members killed in the shooting: Richard Gottfried, Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax.
The men were among the most active of the Conservative congregation’s 100 members who worked hard to keep the synagogue together. (Seven members from the Tree of Life congregation died in the shooting as did a member of a third congregation, called Dor Hadash, Hebrew for “A New Generation.”)
Perlman, who hid in a storage closet during the shooting, said he and other survivors and family members of the victims were all receiving ongoing counseling.
He knows that Barr recently ordered the federal death penalty to be reinstated and has directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the execution of five death row inmates.
But Perlman hopes his plea and that of other rabbis and congregational leaders will persuade Barr not to press for the death penalty in this case.
“I think it’s a moral issue,” he said. “It’s time to stop the madness and think of the victims first.”
The 116-year-old New Light Congregation, which Perlman has led for nearly a decade, has since moved to Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue in the heart of Squirrel Hill, where it rents space. It had made Tree of Life its home after selling its own building in 2017 when maintenance and repairs became too costly for the mostly older congregants.
Before sending his letter to Barr, Perlman sought out the congregation’s co-presidents and its board who, he said, agreed with his reasoning.
After posting the letter to Facebook, Perlman’s friend Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, asked if he could help Perlman build wider support for the letter. To date, Moline has collected signatures from 30 Conservative movement rabbis who have backed Perlman’s letter. (Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life was not among them and he did not respond to email and phone messages. Dor Hadash, the third congregation, is member-led and has no rabbi.)
Jewish tradition has mostly, but not always, opposed the death penalty. The rabbis who shaped modern Judaism have reinterpreted the biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” in multiple ways and introduced a number of brakes on the imposition of the death penalty that suggested they were deeply ambivalent to it.
So too, Perlman notes in his letter, did the Catholic Church — the faith to which the attorney general subscribes.
“I know you are a committed Catholic and you will not let history remember you this way,” Perlman wrote to Barr, who is active in the Arlington (Virginia) Catholic Diocese.
Last year, Pope Francis approved a revision to the catechism that says capital punishment is “inadmissible” in all circumstances and that the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Perlman and Kissileff, his wife, said they were driven to write their letters to Barr after reading Jennifer Berry Hawes’ new book about the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church massacre. For that shooting, Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist who killed nine church members at an Emanuel AME Church Bible study, was convicted and sentenced to death.
Berry Hawes’ book, “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” describes how painful Roof’s trial was to the survivors and family members of the victims, who had to relive the horrific event in court testimony and images.
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Not all of the family members, however, said they regretted the trial for Roof, who is now on death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
Sharon Risher, a trauma chaplain whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed in the shooting, said she too is opposed to the death penalty, but she added:
“I felt like there needed to be a trial. There needed to be accountability from Dylann Roof. I felt like we needed to look him in the face, even though he didn’t look us in our faces. We needed to have the time to read the victim statements, for him to hear the pain in our voices, for him to be held accountable.”
Perlman and his wife are convinced otherwise.
So is Moline, who distributed Perlman’s letter among other rabbis.
“I am willing to trust the judgment of those in the midst of this who know and love their congregations and who are interested not only in justice for the perpetrator,” he said, “but compassion for the survivors.”