Pittsburgh Rabbi Asks That Alleged Shooter Not Face Death Penalty

Jonathan Perlman says his faith -- and concern for his traumatized congregants -- compel him to speak up against capital punishment for the synagogue massacre.

A rabbi of one of the three Pittsburgh congregations targeted in a mass shooting last year at Tree of Life synagogue is asking prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for the gunman.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light Congregation, lost three of his congregants after alleged shooter Robert Bowers opened fire inside the Pittsburgh synagogue last October as the three congregations met there. Eleven people died, making it the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in U.S. history.

Prosecutors are currently deliberating whether to seek the death penalty in the case against Bowers. The suspect, an avowed anti-Semite, has pleaded not guilty to a 63-count indictment, including murder as a hate crime.

Still, Perlman, who survived the massacre by hiding in a storage closet, is imploring federal prosecutors to not seek the death penalty in this case.

In a letter addressed to Attorney General William Barr and Scott W. Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Perlman wrote that his congregation is already “depleted” by the tragedy and would only be re-traumatized by a death penalty trial.

“We are still attending to our wounds, both physical and emotional, and I don’t want to see them opened any more,” he wrote in the letter first reported on by Religion News Service. “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.”

Perlman said some members of his Conservative Jewish congregation are still feeling vulnerable ― hiding from large gatherings, for example. Some are even afraid to attend his synagogue. The rabbi said he doesn’t want to let Bowers cause his community further pain.

“Please be compassionate with our community,” the rabbi pleaded with prosecutors.

HuffPost has reached out to the Department of Justice for comment.

Lay cantor Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash (left), Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation are honored during an Oct. 28 memorial service in Pittsburgh.
Lay cantor Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash (left), Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation are honored during an Oct. 28 memorial service in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Swensen via Getty Images

After a nearly two-decade lapse in federal executions, the Department of Justice announced last month that it will resume using the death penalty. Barr said Monday that the Trump administration is seeking to speed up capital punishment against convicted mass murderers and cop killers. Barr has already asked officials in his department to schedule the executions of five death row inmates convicted of murder.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement about the executions.

Although there are passages in the Torah that call for the death sentence in certain cases, they have since been re-examined and reinterpreted by generations of rabbis. Today, most American rabbis and Jewish denominations strongly discourage or outright oppose the death penalty, claiming it isn’t a just form of punishment.

Tree of Life, a Conservative Jewish congregation that worshipped in the same building as New Light and lost seven members in the shooting, told HuffPost that it does not have a statement about a potential death penalty for Bowers.

“We have confidence that justice will be served,” a spokesperson said in an email.

A request for comment from Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist community that also lost a congregant, was not returned.

In his letter, Perlman asserts that Jewish tradition “vigorously” opposes the death penalty. The rabbi points to Jewish texts that suggest a court is considered “bloodthirsty” if it allows capital punishment even once every 70 years.

Instead of capital punishment, Perlman said the shooter, if convicted, should be incarcerated for life without parole.

“Let him live with it forever,” he said.

Perlman also appealed to Barr’s Roman Catholic roots, pointing out that popes and bishops have spoken out against the death penalty. Prominent American Catholic leaders have condemned Barr’s decision to resume federal executions.

“I know you are a committed Catholic and you will not let history remember you this way,” the rabbi wrote in his letter. “You will let your cherished Christian values be considered in your verdict.”

Perlman’s wife, Beth Kissileff, has also spoken up against prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Bowers. In an opinion piece for The Jerusalem Post in February, Kissileff argued that “it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice” for monstrous crimes.

“The best vengeance for Jews, rather than seeking the shooter’s death, is strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world,” Kissileff wrote. “Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.”

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