Wife of rabbi who survived Tree of Life shooting opposes death penalty
The wife of a rabbi who narrowly escaped the October shooting rampage at Tree of Life synagogue doesn’t want prosecutors to seek the death penalty against alleged gunman Robert Bowers.
In an op-ed piece published Wednesday by the Jerusalem Post, Beth Kissileff writes that she hopes Bowers is convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Kissileff is a writer and novelist.
“I have no way of knowing whether the Pittsburgh shooter is capable of redemptive behavior, but I know from both Talmudic and contemporary sources that humans are capable of it,” she wrote. “The best punishment, in my mind, would be to give the shooter a sentence and an opportunity to abjure his hateful beliefs about Jews and immigrants and work for tolerance and valuing diversity in our country.”
Bowers, 46, of Baldwin entered Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27 armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle and murdered 11 worshipers in what has been described as the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, police and prosecutors said.
Bowers allegedly told police after his capture that he “wanted all Jews to die” and in the days leading up to the attack wrote slurs against Jews and immigrants on websites.
Federal prosecutors have charged him with 63 federal counts, 22 of which are punishable by death. Bowers has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors are considering the death penalty, but have yet to make a decision, according to Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh. Philbin said the decision ultimately rests with the U.S. attorney general.
Kissileff’s husband is Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of the New Life Congregation, one of three congregations that met at Tree of Life. She wrote that Perlman was in the same room when the gunman shot and killed New Life congregants Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Richard Gottfried.
“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,” she wrote.
She noted that while the Torah calls for a death penalty in certain instances, Jews do not interpret that literally and many rabbis do not view a death sentence as effective or just punishment.
She cited the example of Derek Black, the son of Don Black, who founded the major hate site, Stormfront.org, and godson of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. Derek Black in 2013 renounced white nationalism.
“I won’t hold my breath waiting for (Bowers) to emulate Derek Black, but Black’s example shows that it is certainly possible. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death,” Kissileff wrote.
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter .