My editorial in the July issue looked back at some personal highlights from 28 years working at the Jewish World. And at the end, there was an appeal for donations to support this beloved community newspaper. As I noted on our website recently, a few readers have pointed out that some people might not read to the end of my editorial, which comes as something of a shock.
So, here’s the pitch at the top: Readers who value the Jewish World are invited to make donations to help sustain this enterprise. To make it easier to donate, we have created a link at the very top navigation on our website: If you click “Support AJW,” it will take you to a page (bit.ly/AJW-donate) that has a button for credit card donations and instructions for contributing with a check. Checks can be made payable to: American Jewish World, and sent to: American Jewish World, 3249 Hennepin Ave., Suite 245, Minneapolis, MN 55408.
Again, the newspaper is run by Minnesota Jewish Media LLC, a private partnership, not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so donations are not tax deductible. Donations in any amount will be gratefully received.
As we go to press with our August edition, I can report that we’ve received $1,100 in donations, which is a good start. We’re very thankful to those subscribers that have gone above and beyond in supporting the Jewish World, which provides a uniquely Minnesota Jewish slant on the news. Hopefully, we can continue to publish the newspaper for years to come.
With additional resources, we can broaden our reportage, pursue some investigative journalism and travel to Jewish communities around the world.
In other news, the September issue will be our Rosh Hashana special edition. If you would like to publish a New Year greeting, here’s a form that has the instructions: CLICK THIS.
And we have pushed back the publication date to Sept. 8. Normally we publish print editions on the first Friday of each month; however, we can use a little more time to wrangle ads and stories for the High Holy Days issue, which will still reach homes before Rosh Hashana. The deadline for editorial submissions and ad space reservations for the September issue is noon Wednesday, Aug. 30.
That’s about it for Jewish World business.
In the larger Jewish world, as this issue goes to press, a jury is considering whether the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter should receive the death penalty. On the morning of Aug. 1, shortly after beginning deliberations, the jury asked to see the shooter’s weapons.
“The request on Tuesday morning was a signal that the jury is proceeding to its final verdict in the trial, which has lasted for two months,” JTA reported.
“In the aftermath of the jury’s viewing of the weapons, which took less than 10 minutes, Judge Robert Colville discussed with the lawyers how sentencing should proceed on Wednesday. That prompted an alarmed protest from Judy Clark, the chief defense lawyer for Robert Bowers, who killed 11 Jews at prayer on Oct. 27, 2018, the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history. ‘I think we should wait for the verdict, your honor,’ Clark said.”
The JTA story concluded: “It’s not clear why the jury wanted to see the weapons, but in weighing a death sentence, one of the statutory aggravating factors jurors must consider is the risk the gunman’s attack posed to others.
“Since then, jurors have been hearing evidence that mitigating factors, including the gunman’s alleged mental illness and his difficult upbringing, should keep him from death. The government has argued the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors. A death penalty determination must be unanimous; a single juror opposing the penalty means the gunman will automatically get life in prison without parole.”
I have written editorials on the significance of the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers attending Shabbat services at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, on Oct. 27, 2018. This was the worst attack on a Jewish community in U.S. history.
In April 2019, I wrote about my conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of New Light Congregation, one of the three shuls housed in the Tree of Life building. Perlman miraculously escaped the gunman’s murderous rampage, finding a “hidden door” leading out of the synagogue. Three of his congregants — Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Richard Gottfried — were shot to death.
“Perlman, his wife, Beth Kissileff, and their three daughters lived in St. Louis Park for several years,” I wrote four years ago. “He was the director of what was then known as the Robert and Janet Sabes Center for Jewish Arts and Humanities at the Sabes JCC, and later served as a chaplain resident at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.”
When I talked with Perlman, he reflected on the outpouring of support in the aftermath of the mass shooting and on the prevalence of gun violence, including mass casualty shootings in this country.
“There are a lot of things going on around the world that are very violent,” Perlman commented. “Gun violence really has become a paramount concern in the entire world, and I think it’s time to consider the weapons that we use for defense” and for hunting and sport “to make this a less violent world.”
Perlman added, “Maybe we should repeal the Second Amendment, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
For her part, Beth Kissileff, a talented writer, has argued against the imposition of the death penalty for the convicted killer. (Last year, the Jewish World reprinted Kissileff’s remembrance of Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who also survived the Tree of Life massacre.)
In a 2019 article for JTA, Kissileff wrote, “The evil of the shooter who took their lives is beyond human reckoning. And yet, I hope the prosecutors do not pursue the death penalty.”
In her article, Kissileff looked at our Jewish sources: “When Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words “Hashem yikom damam,” may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.
“Although there are many Torah prohibitions that call for a death sentence, our tradition does not interpret them literally. According to the Mishna, a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out once every 70 years, with some of the rabbinic sages balking at ever approving the sentence (Makkot 1:10).
“In short, many rabbis just don’t see the death penalty as effective or just punishment.”
In her conclusion, Kissileff said: “I hope that the U.S. attorney general and the Department of Justice seek a penalty that would imprison the Pittsburgh shooter for life without parole. 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. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.”
I agree with Kissileff’s opposition to the death penalty in this case, and in its general application. Humans are fallible, and state-sanctioned executions cannot be undone.
In 2013, I wrote about the case of Damon Thibodeaux, a Mississippi River workboat deckhand from Texas, who attended a family wedding in Louisiana and was arrested for the rape and murder of a cousin, in 1996. Under a lengthy and intense police interrogation, Thibodeaux confessed to the heinous crimes, which he did not commit.
A jury quickly convicted Thibodeaux and ordered him to be put to death. He spent 15 years on Louisiana’s death row before lawyers, including Steve Kaplan, his attorney in Minneapolis, succeeded in getting his conviction overturned, in 2012, after a decade of legal interventions. Sadly, Thibodeaux succumbed to complications of COVID-19 on Aug. 21, 2021, just weeks shy of the nine-year anniversary of his exoneration.
I mentioned in my 2013 story that “the presumption of innocence is derived from writings that go back to the Bible and to Maimonides, who wrote in the 12th century that ‘it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.’”
As a society, we have not evolved in our wisdom to that extent that we can allow the state to kill even those whose crimes are beyond the pale.
Since 1912 the AJW has served as an important news resource for the Jewish community. The Jewish World unites the main Jewish communities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in Duluth, Rochester and smaller cities, and bridges the divides between the various Jewish religious streams.