Shalom Aleichem Governor Josh Shapiro!
We, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” offer this toast to you for your moral and ethical leadership on one of the most fundamental and – quite literally – vital – issues of our time in this nation: abolition of the death penalty.
On Feb. 16, 2023, you announced that you would not be issuing any new execution warrants, and that you would call on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to join nearly half of these United States and seventy percent of global nations – all of civilized humanity – in ending capital punishment in the Keystone State. In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN later that day, you indicated how a spiritual journey led you to shift from a pro-death penalty stance to that of an abolitionist. I pray you know that you are not alone in this change of heart. Many individuals – Jewish and non – have made a similar shift in our opinions on this issue, including myself, as well as many members of our group in L’chaim. You also indicated that your young son’s view on this issue also played a role in convincing you. Another Pennsylvanian death penalty abolitionist by the name of Mr. Fred Rogers would no doubt salute you in your understanding of how the death penalty teaches the wrong lesson to children, and that two wrongs indeed do not make a right.
In that same interview, you indicated how your Jewish identity played a part in your change of heart, moving from a more literalist reading of the Torah and of our sacred rabbinic tradition to one more informed by the legacy of ethics and human rights that have been a part of that same tradition. You have come to the epiphany that countless other Jewish thought leaders have reached in the wake of the horrors of state-sponsored murder that our people have witnessed in the past century: that we simply cannot give the government the power to kill its prisoners. Indeed, our mantra at “L’chaim” comes from none other than Elie Wiesel, who needs no introduction. When asked his views about capital punishment, Wiesel famously said, “Death is not the answer.” Many of our members at “L’chaim, like myself, are the descendents of Holocaust survivors. We chant these words loudly, as we recall Wiesel’s other famous remark on this crucial issue: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory, I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” Weisel’s assertion becomes even more powerful when one considers that 1) gas chambers continue to be built across our land, 2) Zyklon B itself – of Auschwitz infamy – is used in one of them, and that 3) the most common form of execution – lethal injection – is in fact a Nazi legacy, first implemented in our world as part of their Aktion T4 protocol, as devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. This is why we say “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!”
In your statement and your interview, you also referenced the horrific Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, which claimed the life of eleven Jewish worshippers in your state five years ago. Zichronam Livracha – may their memories be for an abiding blessing – memories which we honor at L’chaim. You have recognized that even in the case of their murderer, there is no justification in the death penalty. Like Martin Buber and countless others who petitioned Israel not to kill Adolph Eichmann, you knew that there must be no exceptions to our stance.
We at L’chaim are partnered closely with our friends at Death Penalty Action in our work to mobilize the Jewish and greater world to work toward abolition of this manmade Angel of Death. We make daily calls to all governors with active death warrants in their states. We also are in communication with all individuals, Jewish and non – with scheduled death dates in our country, as well as many others on Rows of Death across our nation. We sign and share petitions for them and engage in daily advocacy that they not be put to death. If the time does arrive, we offer prayers at their final vigils, both for their victims and for them as we seek to continue the American Cycle of Killing. We did so most recently just this past week as Florida renewed its machinery of death by killing our penpal Donald Dillbeck on Feb. 23rd. This nightmare marked the first state murder there since before COVID, as the manmade Angel of Death now once again casts a horrific shadow across the Sunshine State. The nightmare now even threatens to extend to Israel, where a horrific bill calling for the death penalty for terrorists has been approved by the Israeli cabinet just days ago. We at L’chaim continue to fight this unfolding disaster with open letters and a growing united voice, and we shall NEVER back down.
And so, now more than ever, we salute you, Governor Josh Shapiro, for doing the right thing in calling for full abolition of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. On behalf of all our members across the world, all our pen pals in line for execution, all victims in whose names we beg that no more blood be shed, and all of civilized humanity, we offer a toast to you:
L’chaim – to Life!
Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM,
Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action
(Note an original version of this post appeared in an altered form as an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Feb. 21, 2023)