Jews Claim Death Penalty for Tree of Life Shooting Goes Against Jewish Teaching

In the fall of 2018, on October 27, a man armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Amid anti-Semitic insults, he opened fire and killed 11 members of the congregation and injured 6 others. It was the worst attack on the Jewish people in the United States.

Approximately ten months later, the Justice Department has filed its intent to request that the death penalty be enforced upon Robert Bowers for the murder of 11 people. However, not everyone is in agreement that the death penalty is the appropriate course of action.

Pittsburgh Jews Disappointed With Decision

There are three congregations that meet at the Tree of Life synagogue, two of which are “saddened and disappointed” with the Justice Department’s decision to seek the death penalty.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, a leader of New Light Congregation—one of the groups that oppose the death penalty—believes that taking the life of a man even though he spilled innocent blood is contrary to Jewish teaching.

Perlman said, “But what the administration needs to understand is that if they took a poll of the Jewish community they would find out Jews are very much opposed to this for religious reasons.”

Members of Dor Hadash, the other congregation that disproves of the Justice Department seeking the death penalty, mentioned that they would’ve been satisfied with a plea deal that would have given Bowers life in prison without parole.

Survivors of Shooting Disagree on Punishment

Joe Charny and Barry Werber were inside the synagogue when Bowers proceeded with his fatal rampage. They both witnessed the deaths of fellow congregants all around them. Although they suffered through the same experiences, their perspectives on the death penalty are quite different.

Charny didn’t mince words when giving his thoughts on withholding the death penalty. “[The Tree of Life] is sacred to me and to say ‘oh that guy wrecked it and we’ll let him live’ that is horse manure.” He continued, “I don’t think it’s okay. I think there’s a price for this.”

Werber sees things a bit differently. He wants to appeal to the U.S. Attorney General to make sure the death penalty isn’t pursued out of respect for the survivors. “…The families and the survivors and those of us who went through the trauma are going to go through it all over again,” Werber said. “I would much prefer he be put away in a deep dark hole and we forget about him.”

Death Penalty And The Federal Court of Western PA

In a plea letter written to Attorney General William Barr, Rabbi Perlman said, “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 and Werber may have a point. Although the Federal Court in Western Pennsylvania has sentenced three criminals to the death penalty since 1999, not a single one of them has been executed.

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