With the kavanah/intention of sending a gift out into the universe just in time for Hanukkah this year, it is a profound privilege to be able to make public an interview that famed death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean held with me in my role as co-founder of the 3,000-member group L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty I was honored to speak at length with Sister Helen – author of Dead Man Walking, a matriarch in the abolition movement, and a personal hero – on October 3rd, 2023, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. This fraught time was just a week before the execution of my Jewish pen pal Jedidiah Murphy, and – as fate would have it – just days before a deadly Hamas terror attack that sparked the ongoing war with Israel.
It feels quite fitting to be releasing this interview on the first day of Hanukkah this year – not only because of its confluence on the calendar with International Human Rights Defenders Day on December 9th. There can be no doubt that this holiday was born of another war in Israel millennia ago, and this reality should not be minimized by any means, particularly now. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has addressed this subject most powerfully and eloquently in her recent blog post entitled “Bravely Facing Truth,” Still, as Hanukkah has evolved over the centuries, it also has transmuted into a veritable Festival of Light, focusing on the story of a tiny amount of oil that miraculously lasted long enough to keep the Temple’s lamp lit for eight days and nights. Just as I celebrate Judaism’s evolution into the spiritual/cultural tradition that I practice today – a 21st century Judaism that marches for life and peace and absolutely rejects the death penalty without exception in all forms – I also choose to shine a light on the Hanukkah candles as beacons intended to illuminate these same life-affirming values across this world.
It is in this vein that, once again this year, the members of L’chaim and I have sent out messages to dozens of our pen pen pals on death rows across the United States, offering the following greeting:
“Shalom Aleichem ______
I pray this message finds you as well as can be, my friend, even during these dark times in our world. May the lights of Hanukkah that we begin to light this evening illuminate the Divine light within us all, and help us to brighten the darkness around us and provide renewed hope for peace and lovingkindness for our world.
Chag Urim Sameakh – Happy Festival of Lights!
– Cantor Michael Zoosman and the Thousands of Members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”
The hope is that these messages will brighten this Hanukkah for the men and women who read them, just as Sister Helen’s message to me has helped sustain my spirit. Indeed, in the days and weeks since our conversation, as the horrific news of captivity and killing from Gaza and Israel continues to darken the world, I personally have taken solace – and discovered renewed light – in Sister Helen’s advice for how to find strength in moments of unfathomable suffering. As she stated in our interview:
“Look at the suffering that’s going on. There’s torture going on of these human beings counting down their last days, and we’re lucky to be awake! We’re graced to be awake to see it and be able to participate in a soul-sized thing Michael!…We get the privilege of accompanying and being with people that everybody else says is disposable human waste and we discover the great treasure of the human being and then that fires us to be engaged in resisting the deaths and awakening the people. What better life could you have?”
May this fire within the heart of Sister Helen help ignite the flame of abolition in all souls this Hanukkah and holiday season. May the world indeed heed the many wise reflections that she imparted that day. They are lessons drawn from a lifetime of experience of walking with death. They emanate from a profound soulful place that should unite peoples of all cultures and spiritual traditions.
And so, here for the first time is a transcript of this interview, which now can be viewed in its entirety online at this link. Just as it has served as a priceless gift for me, may it be so for all who deign to listen. As the Hanukkah lights are kindled, I hope more than anything that the reader will find in Sister Helen’s comments a meaningful reminder of the Divine light within every person. Jewish tradition – along with many others – teaches that everyone is created B’tzelem Elokim (in the Divine Image). May human civilization keep this in mind as it continues to strive to move forward together, united under the banner of life.
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action