Leaders from two of the three congregations affected by the October 27, 2018 shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue (pictured) in Pittsburgh are asking the federal government not to seek a death sentence for the accused white supremacist murderer.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation and President Donna Coufal of Dor Hadash Congregation wrote letters to Attorney General William Barr, requesting that Robert Bowers, charged with killing 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, receive a life sentence. Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, was among those killed, joined the request in a separate letter. The letters—which deliberately avoid using the shooter’s name to deny him additional notoriety—highlight religious objections to capital punishment, as well as concerns that a death-penalty trial would retraumatize survivors of the shooting and the victims’ families.

In March 2019, Rabbi Perlman—whose congregation lost three members in the shooting—and his wife, Beth Kissileff met with U.S. Department of Justice officials about the killings. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that they urged federal prosecutors not to seek the death penalty in the case. “If as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?,” she wrote.

In an August 1, 2019 letter that he shared on Facebook one week later, Rabbi Perlman explained to Barr his perspective “as a victim of the attack and one who has spoken to our families.” “[W]e have been depleted by the ordeal of this year,” he wrote, and “are still recovering from trauma.” He spoke of the opposition to capital punishment shared by both the Jewish faith and the Catholic Church, to which the Attorney General belongs: “Following many countries around the world, I would like to believe that our nation is slowly phasing out this cruel form of justice. Both our religious traditions, yours Catholic and mine Jewish, vigorously oppose the death penalty,” Perlman wrote.

Rabbi Perlman also expressed his views on what punishment was most appropriate for the synagogue shooter. “I would like the Pittsburgh killer to be incarcerated for the rest of his life without parole. He should meditate on whether taking action on some white separatist fantasy against the Jewish people was really worth it. Let him live with it forever,” he wrote. Expressing concerns about the impact of a trial on the Pittsburgh Jewish community, Perlman said, “We are still attending to our wounds, both physical and emotional, and I don’t want to see them opened any more. …A drawn out and difficult death penalty trial would be a disaster with witnesses and attorneys dredging up horrifying drama and giving this killer the media attention he does not deserve.”

Donna Coufal, President of the Dor Hadash Congregation, wrote on behalf of her congregation’s board and members to encourage Attorney General Barr to accept the plea deal offered by Bowers’ lawyers and to avoid a lengthy high-profile death-penalty trial. “In consideration of the significant injury to our congregation, Dor Hadash requests that the parties agree to a plea deal in which the perpetrator would accept a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole in exchange for the prosecution’s agreement not to seek the death penalty,” she wrote. “We believe that the elimination of a trial and publicity for the shooter serves the interest of our congregation, as well as the general public. A plea bargain for life without parole will prevent this individual getting the attention and publicity that would inevitably come with a trial.”

Miri Rabinowitz, whose husband, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, belonged to Dor Hadash and was killed in the attack, wrote separately to say that sentencing his killer to death would violate his beliefs. “In honor of his blessed memory, and his deep and abiding opposition to the death penalty, I am writing to urge you, in the strongest terms possible, to accept the offer made by the perpetrator to plead guilty,” she wrote. Her letter also emphasized the desire to avoid the trauma of a trial and the attention it would draw to the defendant and his white supremacist beliefs. The plea deal, she said, would allow her to “continue the slow and painful process of healing without having to relieve the horrific circumstances of Jerry’s murder through a trial and inevitable lengthy appeals and deny the perpetrator a public platform from which to spew his most vicious, and sadly infectious brand of hatred.” “Most of all,” she continued, “it would prevent the cruel and bitter irony of imposing the death sentence, ostensibly in Jerry’s name, when Jerry abhorred capital punishment and devoted himself in word and deed, professionally, personally and spiritually, to the sanctity of life.”


Peter Smith, Rabbi, oth­er sur­vivors urge no death penal­ty for syn­a­gogue killer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 17, 2019; Megan Guza, Dor Hadash, New Light lead­ers urge AG to accept life in prison for accused Tree of Life gun­man, Tribune-Review, August 16, 2019; Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Letter to Attorney General William Barr, August 12019.