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Michael Zoosman

When the Death Penalty Hits Home – from West Hartford, CT to Israel

A picture of the author’s childhood home in West Hartford, CT. The author grew up on the same street as the family of Mr. Elan Ganeles, z’l. Photo by author.

On Monday, February 27th, 26-year-old American citizen Elan Ganeles, z’l, (zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing) was brutally murdered in a horrific act of terrorism in the West Bank while he was visiting Israel. This is a consummate tragedy the scope of which cannot be measured in any words. And now, it is being further compounded by renewed calls in Israel for the passage of a bill before the Knesset to allow for the death penalty for terrorists. In many of the same posts that mourn Elan, z’l, individuals are expressing hope that this bill comes to fruition, often citing the fallacy that capital punishment will deter other would-be terrorists from committing murder, and ostensibly prevent future catastrophes.

I did not know Elan, z’l, and I do not live in Israel. I cannot begin to fathom what his loved ones are experiencing now, nor can I imagine the trauma inflicted on our Israeli brothers and sisters. And yet, I feel a palpable connection in my heart to what has transpired across the world – one that transcends even my Jewish identity and support of Israel. It happens that Elan, z’l, and I both hailed from the same hometown of West Hartford, CT. In fact, his family and mine lived on the very same street in that heavily Jewish suburb in the Constitution State. I have had the pleasure of davenning/praying at Young Israel of West Hartford, where Elan, z’l, had attended, just around the corner from my home. Elan, z’l, and I likely had walked the same blocks on shabbatot/sabbaths and chagim/holidays – albeit decades apart.  

(Tragically, Elan, z’l, was not the first West Hartford resident murdered in Israel. In 1996, 25-year-old West Hartford resident and rabbinical student Matthew M. Eisenfeld, z’l and his fiancee 23-year-old Sara Duker, z’l, of Teaneck, NJ were killed when a suicide bomber blew up their bus in Jerusalem. Matthew had attended my alma mater of Hall High School in West Hartford, and at the time of his murder was enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I also was ordained as a cantor.)

As a hospital chaplain who deals with death daily, I have learned that there is no  “right” or “wrong” way to feel in the wake of the passing of loved ones, let alone when they are brutally murdered.

We, as a society, have the responsibility to protect and accompany all who mourn Elan, z’l. We must provide a safe space for those impacted by this tragedy so that they can express the full gamut of feelings – shock, horror, rage, depression, fear, the visceral desire for vengeance and any and all stages of grief. 

We, as a society, have the responsibility to do all we can to prevent atrocities like this from happening again. 

And we, as a civilized society, have a mandate in the twenty-first century to do this all without calling for a return to the fundamental human rights violation that is the death penalty. Such state-sponsored murder will fail to deter anyone from committing future acts of violence. Instead, this posited moral regression will only reduce us to their level, while at the same time creating new martyrs for those who seek to eradicate the Jewish people. 

Rather than taking this path of medieval barbarism, I, like so many others, shall continue to keep Elan, z’l, and his family in my prayers. I will make donations to fundraisers for his family. I will do my small part in my corner of the world to work for Shalom Ba’aretz – Peace in the Land – in every way I can. I take solace in learning that the terrorists who have murdered Elan, z’l, have been caught, and will not be able to inflict harm on anyone else. And still, there is no doubt that the path toward peace in Israel remains one of the tallest orders of our day. It is an effort toward which I hope to dedicate renewed energy with my colleagues at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, JStreet, Rabbis for Human Rights and many other outstanding organizations dedicated to this sacred cause. 

In the wake of the murder of Elan, z’l, and the awful renewed calls for the death penalty, I feel yet another personal kesher/connection to this unfolding nightmare. Other than the fact that I am Jewish, an ordained cantor and care deeply in my neshama/soul about Israel, I also happen to be a former prison chaplain and the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” a group with thousands of members worldwide, including in Connecticut and Israel. I have become well-versed in the many studies that have proven time and again how the death penalty is not a deterrent to those ready and willing to commit murder. Just weeks ago L’chaim published an open letter to the current Israeli government with a reminder of this established fact, while expressing our horror over Israel’s renewed calls for the death penalty. We at L’chaim know well from our experience in working directly with those impacted by the death penalty in the USA that while the call for capital punishment for those who commit murder is a normal reaction to such inconceivable loss, it is neither a pragmatic, nor a morally, ethically or spiritually appropriate response – not even to the worst crimes imaginable. The seventy percent of nations worldwide who have abolished the death penalty already have realized this. When it comes to Israel especially, given the nature of terrorist attacks there, we also know that executions will only serve to create more martyrs for those who seek to destroy the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

There is one more relevant Connecticut Jewish connection worthy of mention here. On Oct. 27, 2010, the late renowned author, human rights activist, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel was in Connecticut, speaking about his stance as a death penalty abolitionist during a lecture on capital punishment at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Earlier that day at a press conference, Wiesel was asked about his feelings on the death penalty in the case of a brutal home invasion that had taken place in nearby Cheshire, CT in 2007. I shall never forget that atrocity, which was carried on all the local news stations at the time. On July 23, 2007, Linda Hayes (born Steven Hayes) and Joshua Komisarjevsky had invaded the residence of the Petit family in the small town of Cheshire. Though initially planning only to rob the house, Hayes and Komisarjevsky viciously attacked and murdered Jennifer Hawke-Petit, z’l, and her two daughters, 17-year-old Hayley Petit, z’l, and 11-year-old Michaela Petit, z’l. Their father Dr. William Petit escaped with severe injuries. The Hartford Courant cited this case as “possibly the most widely publicized crime in the state’s history.”  When asked for his opinion on capital punishment for the perpetrators that day, Wiesel focused his remarks on people like Dr. Petit and himself, both of whom were family members of murder victims. He indicated that murderers should be punished more harshly than other prisoners and encouraged the criminal justice system to focus efforts on the survivors of violent crimes “so that families will not feel cheated by the law.” “But,” he said, “death is not the answer.” He emphasized that he might change his stance if the death penalty could bring back victims, which of course it could not. “I know the pain of those who survive,” Wiesel said. “Believe me, I know… Your wound is open. It will remain. You are mourning, and how can I not feel the pain of your mourning? But death is not the answer. He concluded: “death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” The people of Connecticut agreed, and we abolished the death penalty in the Constitution State in 2012.

Death is not the answer. 

Wiesel’s words loom large. They form an anthem for us in L’chaim, along with this famous comment he made on subject of the death penalty: 

“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.” 

Wiesel likely would remind us of his words now as we seek to respond to this most recent tragedy that has impacted the Jewish communities of both Connecticut and Israel. He knew that the death penalty would not have prevented the 2007 murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, z’l, and her two daughters, 17-year-old Hayley Petit, z’l, and 11-year-old Michaela Petit, z’l, in Cheshire, CT. He would have known as well that it would not have stopped the slaying of Elan Ganeles, z’l on Monday, nor the terrorist attack that took the lives of brothers Hallel (21) and Yagel (19) Yaniv, z’l, the day prior in Israel. He knew that it would not have precluded the 1996 suicide bombings that claimed the lives of Sara Duker, z’l and West Hartford resident Matthew Eisenfeld, z’l. To be resoundingly clear, the threat of the death penalty will not stop anyone who is intent on killing Jews in Israel, or any human being…anywhere. 

A Holocaust survivor like Weisel making such a powerful assertion about the dangers of the death penalty becomes even more meaningful when one considers just how capital punishment is carried out here in the USA. Namely, 1) gas chambers continue to be built across this nation, 2) the poison gas Zyklon B itself – of Auschwitz infamy – is used in one of them, and 3) the most common form of execution that we see in America – lethal injection – is in fact a Nazi legacy, first implemented in our world as part of the Third Reich’s Aktion T4 protocol, as devised by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. 

Many of us in L’chaim, like myself, are direct descendents of Holocaust survivors. We know very well that the death penalty and the Shoah/Holocaust are not the same. And yet, we also know that “Never Again” must have meaning in our world, lest we open a Pandora’s box and allow history the possibility of repeating itself. And so, in the wake of the events of the twentieth-century, and the Holocaust in particular, we join Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber (who with other Jewish human rights luminaires opposed the execution of Adolph Eichmann) and countless other Jewish leaders across the world when we fervently chant: “L’chaim – to Life!”

Zichrono Livracha –  May the beloved memory of Elan Ganeles (Hebrew name: Elan Aryeh ben Avraham Feivel V’ Kayla Sarah), be an everlasting blessing. 

May his neshama/spirit be a loving guide for us all. 

May his loved ones be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem…

Cantor Michael J. 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

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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