Jews speak out against death penalty on eve of execution

“An eye for an eye” is the most frequently heard biblical passage to describe Judaism’s take on capital punishment.

So why has Rabbi Lavey Derby been outspokenly anti-death penalty for the past 25 years?

Because, according to the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Shofar, the rabbis who interpreted that passage over the years took it to mean that it should be enforced only when guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Additionally, he said, “the rabbis understood first and foremost that everyone is created in the image of God, and that every life is of infinite value.”

The rabbi made his remarks at a teach-in on Judaism and the death penalty held at Tiburon’s Kol Shofar on Monday, Dec. 12, only hours before Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed at nearby San Quentin State Prison.

The teach-in, which was also co-sponsored by Congregation Rodef Sholom of San Rafael, the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center and Progressive Jewish Alliance, drew about 200 people, some of whom later carpooled to San Quentin to participate in a vigil for the execution. At least eight Bay Area rabbis took part in the vigil.

At the teach-in, a panel discussion was followed by smaller workshops, two of which were led by lawyers active on the issue.

Similar teach-ins will be held in the coming months, as two more executions are already scheduled for early 2006. One will take place Jan. 16 at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, and another will be Feb. 20 at a San Francisco location to be determined.

Derby also argued that the concept of teshuvah, or repentance, is central to Yom Kippur, and therefore, Judaism.

“Sometimes we make terrible mistakes,” he said. “But we have to be given the chance to grow and change.”

J.T. Gottlieb was there as a living example.

Wearing a brand-new suit, Gottlieb was released from prison in early September after serving 25 years in three different prisons, including a decade at San Quentin. He announced he had only been free for 99 days.

Gottlieb grew up in Southern California and had a bar mitzvah. As a teenager, he got into drinking, drugs and theft. He ran with a rough crowd, he said, and ended up driving the getaway car for a man who committed murder.

He received a 17-year-to-life sentence, and finally, after four attempts, got out on parole.

Gottlieb was not “out” as a Jew at San Quentin because of the white supremacists there, he said.

He said the prison system does not facilitate rehabilitation; a prisoner has to come to that point on his own. While he continued to use drugs and alcohol in prison (“It’s easy,” he said) for six years, he finally came to the realization that changed him for the better.

“I call it an epiphany from God,” he said. “I believe that God asked me to do good deeds. I saw the opportunity to rehabilitate myself.”

Carole Hyman, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at San Quentin for the past year, spoke of her congregation inside the prison walls.

In addition to the Jews in the mainline population, she said, “I’m the chaplain to 15 men on death row. Ten of them were born Jewish, three embraced it since incarceration and those remaining are not Jewish.”

Hyman maintained that in her experience, Jews at San Quentin felt safe to wear kippot or tzitzit if they chose to.

“So what are these men [on death row] like?” she asked. “They are human. There is not a single one [in whom] I cannot find the spark of humanity. There is not a single one that I cannot empathize with.”

And then she added, “I also believe that some of them are innocent.”

That notion was seconded by Lola Vollen, a doctor who co-founded the Life After Exoneration program, which helps the newly exonerated adjust to their re-entrance to society.

Vollen said she believed public opinion was shifting against capital punishment because of DNA testing.

Yet the only thing a death row prisoner really has on his side is time, she said.

“”Tying the discussion back to the man about to be executed, she said, “One thing we are robbed of in the loss of Williams is the truth.”

In a related development, Piedmont’s Kehilla Community Synagogue draped itself in black on Monday, to mourn the death of Williams — and those killed in the murders for which he was convicted.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."