Road to atonement: Joshua Kaplan is on a new path after serving 22 years for murder

On his 11th day as a free man, Joshua Kaplan attended Shabbat morning services at Kehilla Community Synagogue. When Rabbi David J. Cooper asked if anyone wanted to bench gomel — recite the blessing that one traditionally says after surviving severe illness, childbirth or any kind of danger — Kaplan approached the bimah. He took a deep breath. “I’ve survived 22 years in prison,” he said. “I just got out.”

And with that, he uttered, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who bestows kindness on those who are committed, and who has granted to me all kindness.”

“I instantly felt such a sense of at-homeness,” Kaplan said later in an interview. “The response was amazing.”

These weeks are the time when Jews traditionally do teshuvah, or repentance, asking forgiveness first of any people they might have wronged, and then of the divine. For Kaplan, 39, that imperative has particular resonance.

Released from prison on May 2, Kaplan is trying to rebuild his life after spending 22 years behind bars as part of a very small demographic — Jews doing time for murder.

Part of his teshuvah process is telling his story, with the goal of helping others. He was particularly willing to share it with j., since he considered the news weekly a lifeline to the Jewish community while he was incarcerated. It was also through j. that he read about Kehilla, and — because of its reputation as a congregation for social activists — decided to head to the synagogue, located on the border of Piedmont and Oakland, when he got out.

But would he get out? Given that the sentence he faced was 15 years to life, it was quite possible that Kaplan could have spent the rest of his years behind bars.

Kaplan was 17 years old when he shot and killed Keith Alan Taylor, a 40-year-old security guard from Union City, during a burglary. A Vietnam veteran who had just retired from the Army after 20 years, Taylor left behind a wife and two children. He was unarmed when he died.

Kaplan is tall and sturdy. With his glasses and graying beard, he looks more like a high school teacher than a product of the California penal system. He was raised in a culturally Jewish home in North Berkeley, where a menorah was lit next to the Christmas tree. The family was not religious, though young Josh did attend a Jewish day camp in Berkeley, Camp Kee Tov, for a few summers.

A few days after being released from prison in May, Joshua Kaplan wades into the Pacific Ocean.

His parents divorced when he was 8, though he says he does not blame anyone but himself for the choices he made in his teen years. “I had a lot of emotional conflict within me that I didn’t know how to process or express,” he said.

By junior high, he was using drugs and drinking regularly, which quickly turned into truancies from Berkeley High; he started smoking marijuana, he said, and by high school had graduated to psychedelic mushrooms, LSD and crystal meth.

At 17, he dropped out of school and left home. His mother, Pat Cleveland, now a San Francisco resident, said that she knew her son was “in a world of pain and hurt,” and while she tried to get through to him, she felt helpless. Things escalated quickly.

On Aug. 26, 1990, Kaplan took part in a four-person burglary of Kobe Precision Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer/importer in Hayward where one of the four, 24-year-old William Gilbert, previously had worked as a security guard.

Kaplan said he was high on meth, LSD and PCP when he hid in the bushes before the robbery. He said Gilbert approached the store where Taylor, a private security guard, was making his rounds. According to media reports, the burglars forced Taylor to let them in.

Once inside, Gilbert fired one bullet into Taylor, wounding but not killing him.

“I remember being in the building and another man dragging Keith Taylor down the hallway where they put him in a closet,” Kaplan recalled in a recent interview. “At some point, someone handed me a shotgun. The next thing I remember is the [closet] door opening, and someone telling me to shoot him.”

Kaplan said his memory of much of that morning is hazy from drugs and, he suspects, his subconscious blocking it. But pulling the trigger is something he remembers vividly.

“It’s the kind of thing I would love to say I wasn’t capable of, but I did it,” he said, growing teary. “There was a man in pain, scared, lying on the floor of a mop closet. And instead of doing what any decent human being would do, I killed him. It’s something that I’m going to live with every day for the rest of my life.”

Kaplan dressed for a prom in Texas, 1990

Taylor was found dead by police shortly afterward. Kaplan, Gilbert, 18-year-old Alden Dutra and Cruz Arellanes, 20, were arrested the next night at a private home in Richmond.

The three adults were charged with murder, but did not face the death penalty. Kaplan, who fired the shot that ultimately killed Taylor, was tried as an adult — the first juvenile to be tried as an adult in a death penalty case in Alameda County. He had no prior record.

Kaplan eventually pled guilty to second-degree murder, which is generally defined as an intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned.

Kaplan spent two years in juvenile hall, and then was transferred to Santa Rita Jail, a county jail in Dublin. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and said by 1994 he was clean.

Cleveland, his mother, rearranged her life around her son, often visiting him as many as three times a week.

“My child had a certain kind of special needs that I never anticipated,” Cleveland said. “He lost himself in a way that I never could have imagined, but yet it happened. And then that was my reality as well as his.”

From Santa Rita, Kaplan was transferred to the California Youth Authority near Stockton for one year, and then in 1996, he was moved to Deuel Vocational Institute, a state prison in Tracy. There, one of the first things he saw was a giant, muscled inmate with a swastika tattooed on his face.

“That was when I became aware of the reality of the hatred that was directed towards me because of my being Jewish, and that there were people who would want to do me harm,” Kaplan said. “Although I was never physically attacked, I had many anti-Semitic remarks and slurs directed at me over the years.”

According to the Florida-based Aleph Institute, a Lubavitch organization that administers to Jews in prison, there currently are about 4,000 Jews in prison in the United States, with about 100 doing time for murder.

Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of outreach for Aleph, said that Jewish inmates in California and Arizona have more to fear than in other states because of the large gang and skinhead presence. While he said that anti-Semitism can be a problem among both inmates and guards, it is less of a problem in lower-security prisons, which is where most Jews are serving time for nonviolent crimes.

Newspaper clipping from the Hayward Daily Review shows Keith Taylor’s children holding his photo, August 1990

Kaplan said that it’s common for Jews not to be “out” in the prisons where he was held, because of the large skinhead presence.

At Deuel, which houses a small number of minimum- and low-security inmates, Kaplan learned computer-assisted drafting and video editing, and he also learned how to do beadwork.

Kaplan said he spent his first few years in a deep depression, but once he got clean, he decided he wasn’t going to give up on himself.

“I used drugs as a way to ignore my internal problems, and I wasn’t going to do same thing with prison that I did with drugs,” he said. “Even though I might not get out, I made an effort to try to mentally keep one foot on the outside.”

Kaplan spent nine years at Deuel, and in 2005, he was transferred to Soledad State Prison, a minimum- to medium-security correctional training facility in Monterey County. It was there that he obtained his associate’s degree and began exploring faith traditions, eventually finding his way back to Judaism.

“You have more time for introspection in prison than almost anywhere else,” he said, “and you’ve gone to some very dark places within yourself.”

According to Katz, Kaplan’s is a typical story.

“Most Jewish inmates are not observant at all when they come in, and a good 80 percent of them become somewhat observant,” Katz said. “There are many reasons, but first and foremost, most Jewish inmates are out of place in prison. They’re not living with the type of people they were associating with on the outside, and Judaism gives them an avenue to interact with people more like themselves. Also, it’s the situation of athiests in foxholes. They’re in a tough spot, and are naturally looking for some sort of guidance or assistance, and faith fills that void.”

Kaplan at Lake Merritt photo/cathleen maclearie

Kaplan said what he found most relevant was Judaism’s take on teshuvah.

“Judaism does not tell me that everything is fine,” he said. “It tells me that we have work to do, that I can’t be complacent in my life.”

Kaplan said he started asking his family to bring him prayerbooks while he was in prison, and that he also asked for tefillin and a tallit. He started laying tefillin daily and living an observant life.

He also began attending Shabbat services, held in another, lower-security section of the prison. But Soledad often was under lockdown due to violence among inmates, so Kaplan said he frequently observed Shabbat alone in his cell. His desire for community, as well as the violence at Soledad, led him to request a transfer to another prison with a larger Jewish population.

With prison chaplains supporting his case, a good prison work history and a record of excellent conduct — as well as pressure from his family — his request was granted. In 2008, 18 years after his crime, he was moved to the California Medical Facility, a minimum- to medium-security state prison in Vacaville that has a sizable Jewish community.

There, Kaplan said he immersed himself in all the Jewish opportunities available to him: services and study groups on Shabbat, Tuesday afternoon and evening prayers, and the kosher meal plan, which some 30 prisoners signed up for.

When there was no rabbi present, Kaplan would lead services.

Kaplan receives his high school diploma at DeWitt Nelson Training Center in Stockton, 1996

“Josh was firmly on the Jewish path by the time I met him,” said San Francisco resident Rabbi Tsvi Bar-David, who has counseled in the prison system, including at CMF Vacaville. “He was one of the strong lay leaders.”

In Vacaville, Kaplan worked in the hospice, sitting with elderly inmates close to death, and also worked with a volunteer group of inmates that fixed Braille machines, made audio recordings of books and provided other services for the blind. Kaplan designed the group’s website using the programming skills he had learned.

Fifteen years into his sentence, Kaplan became eligible for parole. After he was denied six times, he began to think he might spend the rest of his life locked up.

“To a degree, how could I complain? I took a man’s life,” he said. “But then again, I am so aware of what I’ve done, it’s something that is with me and informs so much of what I do throughout the day. With the concept of everyone’s responsibility in tikkun olam [fixing the world], I have double responsibility. I could either give up, or try and make the fullest life I can.”

After six straight years of denial, Kaplan was granted parole this past May. The court report stated that the parole board was satisfied Kaplan had taken full responsibility for his crime, had a sobriety plan in place for after his release, and had sufficient emotional and financial support from his family. A psychiatric evaluation from 2008 also determined that he had taken full responsibility for his actions.

In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown has been more lenient on parole than former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

State Sen. Mark Leno wrote four letters to the parole board recommending Kaplan’s release. Leno first came to know of Kaplan through Cleveland’s advocacy on his behalf.

“His story was an uncommon one in that he clearly made a horrible mistake as a young man and was very quick to express his remorse and commit himself to his own rehabilitation, and did so very successfully while in the state prison system,” Leno told j. “He’s an amazing individual, and we don’t always hear enough about these kinds of success stories.”

Kaplan, his mother, Pat Cleveland, and State Sen. Mark Leno

An attempt was made to reach Taylor’s family through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Victims and Survivors Services, which called Taylor’s surviving family members on j.’s behalf, but they did not respond.

Now that Kaplan is out on parole, local experts say it is unlikely he will end up back in prison.

“People who commit murder are very unlikely to do it again,” said Elaine Leeder, dean of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University and the author of “My Life with Lifers,” based on her experience teaching inmates at San Quentin State Prison. “It’s an aberration to commit a murder. It’s not a typical behavior, as it’s usually done in a moment of anger or rage.”

Nancy Mullane, the Bay Area–based author of “Life After Murder: Five Men In Search of Redemption,” said that of the 988 lifers released by parole boards between 1990 and May 31, 2011 in California, none have returned to prison — a statistic that, perhaps more than anything, validates the due diligence of parole boards in releasing those they have determined will not murder again.

“Josh had tremendous regret and remorse for the murder and fully understood the stupidity of it and the loss of human life,” Bar-David said. “I truly believe that his Judaism will stick. It will evolve, just like it does for all of us, but it will stick. I see Josh as a truly spiritual person.”

Shortly after his release, Kaplan and his mother enjoyed a Shabbat dinner at Bar-David’s home in the Richmond District.  Kaplan also visited Leno to thank him for his support. But perhaps the most emotional moment was in synagogue when he boldly opted to expose his past and his vulnerability, in front of congregants who were strangers to him.

“He did it in a way that wasn’t apologetic or ashamed,” said Kehilla’s Rabbi Cooper, who had just met him for the first time that May morning. “He just put it right out there, and people welcomed him to this time of freedom. Several people said ‘Mazel tov’ or ‘Welcome out.’ ”

Josh Kaplan at Lake Merritt in August photo/cathleen maclearie

Kaplan now has started working toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology at San Francisco State University. He’s living with his sister in Oakland and has become a member of Kehilla, which he attends regularly. He feels enormous gratitude both for his second chance, and for the incredible support of his family.

“Your family becomes your victims too,” he said. “I can never make up for how much I’ve put them through emotionally and financially.”

When asked whether he would ever reach out to Taylor’s family, Kaplan said, “I firmly believe in making that step, but I would never want to harm their lives anymore just so I could get some relief. I’ve already caused them so much pain.”

As a condition of his parole, he is not allowed to contact them. He is also not allowed to vote, or go outside a 50-mile radius of his home without permission. He is randomly tested for drugs and alcohol. His parole will be reconsidered in five years, and if his record is clean, it could be lifted. A call to Kaplan’s parole officer was not returned.

Kaplan has already become politically active. He has gotten involved with a Kehilla group opposed to the death penalty; with Justice Now, which advocates on behalf of women in prison; with Life Support Alliance, which advocates for suitable lifers to be released on parole; and with Books Not Bars, which serves family members of juvenile offenders. He has helped with the “Yes on 34” campaign, which supports a November ballot proposition that seeks to end the death penalty in California, and says he would like to volunteer with as many causes as he can. He also works in a mosaic store in San Francisco.

Eventually he would like to put his technology skills to use by helping what he calls “socially conscious nonprofits” with their tech needs. He also hopes to use his experiences for the good, by talking to at-risk youth about the choices he made. Before he was released from Vacaville, the warden asked him to come back in six months, to tell his former fellow inmates about adjusting to life on the outside.

“I could feel, ‘I did 22 years, my debt is paid,’ ” Kaplan said. “No. It’s not paid. My entire life is geared toward trying to make up for what I’ve done.

“If you destroy a life, you destroy an entire world,” he said, quoting the Talmud. “I have a lot of work to do.”

J. intern Elan Merry contributed research for this article.


cover photo/cathleen maclearie

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."