Michael Zoosman

Our Appeals to the Hardened Hearts of Pro-Death Governors at Passover

Source: Luxor Governorate, Egypt No copyright.

Every single business day, we, the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty”, make phone calls to American political leaders who hold in their hands the power to grant life and death to our condemned pen pals. In each of these calls, we beg for their very lives.

I am a Jewish former prison chaplain and I join many in our group who correspond regularly with all individuals – Jewish and non – who are in line for state-sponsored murder on Rows of Death across our nation. For all of our pen pals, elected or appointed officials hold the power of granting clemency and saving them from execution, whether by gas chamber, electrocution, firing squad or lethal injection. 

Seventy-percent of the nations of the world have recognized that the power to kill those we incarcerate is not one that any government official or body should hold. They have learned the lessons conveyed by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) in his famous words on capital punishment, exclaiming:

“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.”  

It is profoundly fitting that Wiesel connected the idea of Malakh HaMavet – The Angel of Death – with the death penalty. This Passover, we again shall tell the story of how our ancestors in Egypt did all they could so that this “Destroyer” would pass over their homes on their quest for freedom. (Ex 12: 23) As we do so this year, our nation likely will “feature” a Passover execution on April 12, the seventh day of our sacred holiday, when Florida plans to murder one of our pen pals. We pray that this man-made “Angel of Death” will indeed pass-over this human being, who has told us directly by phone just days ago how he has “G-d in his heart.”

We in L’chaim do not claim to be nearly as holy as Moses in his multiple appeals to Pharaoh to “let my people go” throughout the Exodus saga. And yet, perhaps we might be forgiven for drawing a parallel between our daily calls to political leaders whose hearts consistently remain just as hardened as their ancient Egyptian counterpart. As we read in multiple p’seukim/verses in the Exodus story, “va-yikhbad lev Par’o” – Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, stopping him from releasing the Israelites.  For the thousands of us in L’chaim, these many Biblical reminders of Pharaoh’s refractory atherosclerosis call to mind the many political leaders we contact daily who remain consistently unmoved from their pro-death stance. Unlike the next slated execution victim, these political leaders do not at all seem to have “G-d in their hearts.”

Our script for our daily calls is a variation of the following text used for states (and the federal government) that utilize lethal injection, which is the most common method of execution used in America:

“Shalom Aleichem/Peace unto you, My name is ____ and I am calling on behalf of the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” across the world, and throughout your jurisdiction. We are calling to beg for the lives of our pen pals in line for state-sponsored murder in ______, which uses lethal injection. Lethal injection, of course, was first implemented in our world by the Nazis as part of their infamous Aktion T4 Protocol used to kill people deemed “unworthy of life,” as designed by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. Every use of lethal injection or any form of state-sponsored murder directly carries on the Nazi legacy of the same. We know that your jurisdiction of _______ is better than this. We commend you for your commitment to public safety, which we need: may it grow! And…may it be balanced by a commitment to the most fundamental human right of all: the right of life itself. As Elie Wiesel famously said of capital punishment – and as we, the descendants of Holocaust survivors echo –  “Death is not the answer.” Rather, as we say: “L’chaim…to Life!” 

Some jurisdictions in our nation offer the gruesome “Sophie’s Choice, 2.0” of making the condemned elect their form of execution, which in some states includes the option of the gas chamber. In Arizona, that chamber features death by Zyklon B itself – the very gas used in Auschwitz. For these states, we amend our script accordingly.

How wonderful it would be if our daily appeals were heard, if political hearts were softened and if the pro-death leaders were to reply as Pharaoh responded to Moses on one occasion: “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with your G-d יהוה that this death but be removed from me.” (Ex. 10: 17) Instead, the answer we usually receive to our calls is silence…and death. 

Though we are not Moses, we shall follow his example and continue our pursuit of restorative justice. We welcome all to join us in our quest to put an end to this American cycle of violence and killing by aligning with “L’chaim!”, making daily calls of your own, and signing and sharing petitions that our friends at Death Penalty Action (DPA) deliver to political leaders for ALL those in line for execution. 

Together, we shall one day indeed succeed in making this proverbial Angel of Death permanently pass over our nation and our world, as we unceasingly and vociferously chant our mantra:

“L’chaim…to Life!”

Cantor Michael Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Board Member, Death Penalty Action

Note: This post  appeared in its original form here: 

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture 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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