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Michael Zoosman

Honoring the Victims, Z’L, of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Shooting

Image: The group L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty protests at the Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty on June 29th, 2023 with the traditional Jewish memorial prayer - Eil Malei Rachamim - for the eleven Tree of Life Synagogue shooting martyrs, z’l, of blessed memory, whose pictures Cantor Michael Zoosman holds aloft while chanting the prayer. No copyright. 

The thousands of members of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty begin every execution vigil with a traditional memorial prayer for the victims, z’l, (zichronam livracha – may their memories be for a blessing) of the individual being put to death. The same held true this past June 29th, when members of L’chaim recognized the continuing sentencing phase of the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, together with fellow abolitionists at Death Penalty Action and others across the steps from the US Supreme Court as part of the Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty. To begin the event, I chanted the traditional Jewish memorial prayer of Eil Malei Rachamim for the eleven Tree of Life martyrs, z’l. After the prayer, I added the customary phrase that is said when martyrs are invoked: Hashem Yikom Damam – “May the Divine avenge their blood.” Beth Kissileff explained her understanding of this phrase in her powerful April 26, 2022 New Yor Times op-ed, in which she advocated against the death penalty for the Tree of Life shooter. Kissileff, who is the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation (one of the three congregations attacked by the Tree of Life shooter), wrote: “There is a Hebrew expression used for people killed specifically because they are Jews: ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ meaning ‘may God avenge their blood.’ This, to me,” added Kissileff, “means that it is in the divine realm, not the human one, where justice will be served. I do not believe an earthbound court has the right to administer such divine justice.” And so, after invoking this same phrase myself, I added the following: “May the Divine avenge their blood…not humankind.”

Members of L’chaim –  including its co-founder Abe Bonowitz who led a protest two days prior at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, and myself –  have encountered those who feel that it dishonors the dead to advocate against the death penalty for the Tree of Life shooter. The members of L’chaim respectfully disagree with this common misconception about death penalty abolitionists. Indeed, the Eil Malei Rachamim for the Tree of Life victims, z’l, ended with the same words that L’chaim offers to conclude the opening prayer at every execution vigil:

“Zichronam Livracha – May their beloved memories be for an everlasting blessing.

May their neshamot/spirits be loving guides for all who were privileged to know them.

May no more blood be shed in their names.”

When L’chaim recently presented its position on this issue at the request of Dor Hadash, another of the three congregations directly targeted in the Tree of Life massacre, I again began that event with the Eil Malei Rachamim for the victims, z’l. As in every case, while offering this prayer with heartfelt kavod/respect and kavanah/intention, I never would claim to be speaking for anyone other than myself and the members of L’chaim. Most certainly, I never would deign to speak for any murder victims, z’l, or their loved ones. As a hospital chaplain, I regularly counsel mourners that they should feel permission to experience the full gamut of human emotion while grieving, including rage, and even the desire for vengeance where applicable. Let no one ever judge anyone in such a position. If I myself were to lose a loved one to murder, I could very well find myself desiring — and perhaps even advocating for — the death of my loved one’s killer. A civilized society has a responsibility to protect and honor all such mourners, while also upholding the most basic human rights upon which this world stands. Fundamental to these, of course, is the right to life itself. For this reason  alone, 70% of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty in law and practice.

L’chaim has outlined many times why it advocates against capital punishment in every case, including the fact that it is always psychological torture, that any notion of “deterrence” is a fallacy, that it is racist and unjust in its application and that it perpetuates the ongoing wrongful execution epidemic from which the United States continues to suffer. From a Jewish perspective, for many of the members of L’chaim who, like me, are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, the shadow of the Holocaust also is inextricably linked to the firm rejection of the death penalty in all cases, even that of the Tree of Life shooter. L’chaim inherits this torch of abolition from many Jewish leaders who vociferously protested against Israel’s only other execution: that of infamous Nazi perpetrator Adolf Eichmann in 1962. These included renowned Hebrew university philosophers Samuel Hugo Bergmann and Nathan Rotenstreich, scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, who called the execution a great “mistake.” Other Holocaust survivors themselves, such as Nobel-prize winning author, Nelly Sachs voiced public opposition to Eichmann’s execution.

None other than Elie Wiesel best articulated L’chaim’s stance when he famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer in a civilized society.” Wiesel made no exception, stating unequivocally in a 1988 interview: “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.” This applies for any human being – from Adolph Eichmann to the Tree of Life shooter.

L’chaim members will never forget that lethal injection, the most common American form of execution, is a direct Nazi legacy, first implemented in this world by the Third Reich in their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life.” That program was devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, the personal physician of Adolph Hitler. This is indeed the legacy that the US federal government likely would employ in order to put to death the Tree of Life shooter. Various states also continue to utilize gas chambers, and Arizona even has approved the use of Zyklon B, of Auschwitz infamy. No Jewish argument about the death penalty in the 21st century should ignore these facts. Rather, Jews across the world should join our group in chanting: “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!”

And so, the members of L’chaim shall continue to honor the Tree of Life victims, z’l, first and foremost, through prayer and with regular donations to various causes in their beloved memories, while also advocating against death in every single case, including for the Tree of Life shooter. As the logo for L’chaim features the Eitz Chaim – the Tree of Life – at its core, so does that metaphor guide its members in the call to end all state-sponsored killing of prisoners, chanting instead: “L’chaim…to 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

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) and received his cantorial ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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