Orthodox Seattle Rabbi Kills Pedestrian, Serves No Time
I’d hoped I’d never have to write this. Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz struck and killed a Seattle pedestrian who was crossing a street in a crosswalk:
The morning of Nov. 14, 2006, Schwartz struck Tatsuo Nakata, who was crossing Southwest Admiral Way in a crosswalk at 47th Avenue Southwest. Nakata, 29, who was an aide to then-City Councilman David Della, later died at Harborview Medical Center.
There were no skid marks to show Schwartz tried to brake, Senior Assistant City Attorney Kevin Kilpatrick said. “He wasn’t paying attention.”
Schwartz, the director of the West Seattle Torah Learning Center, was on his cellphone at the time, according to court testimony.
It was the second time Schwartz had struck someone with his car. The first time was in May 2005, when he struck Ilsa Govan, who was riding her bike along Interlaken Drive East. Schwartz’s car crossed the lane and collided with her, she testified at the sentencing.
…Schwartz was cited for driving on the wrong side of the road, but the charge was later removed from his record. “I feel lucky to be here. I wish Mr. Schwartz would make the decision never to drive again.”
The deferred sentence means that if Schwartz, 37, has no infractions of the law after two years the charge will be dropped from his record.
Schwartz was talking on a cellphone when the accident occurred. He had eight moving violations over a several year period. He’d struck and seriously injured a bicyclist. I trusted the criminal justice system to do right by his victim despite the fact that Schwartz was a rabbi who’d done good in his Jewish community. There is nothing in Jewish tradition that holds rabbis above the law. In fact, rabbis have been tried and convicted for serious criminal offenses. So I was hoping that Schwartz would be fairly punished for his infraction. He wasn’t. He got away with murder.
A Seattle municipal judge sentenced Schwartz to a two-year suspended sentence. His license will be suspended for only two years. And if he has no further infractions in the next two years even his vehicular killing will be expunged from his record. The judge said no useful purpose would be served by sentencing him to jail time. The implication was that the service Schwartz performs in his community would more than outweigh any purpose there might be in serving time.
But I’ve got news for the judge. Our community isn’t so desperate and our leaders not so irreplaceable that we wouldn’t miss one who had a debt to pay to society. And Schwartz has a big debt to pay.
Look, I am Jewish. I respect rabbis. This man could’ve been a lamed vavnik (saint) for all I know. But he got away with murder. And it’s a shande. Doesn’t the life of a young city council aide with his entire life before him count for anything? And what is the Japanese community to think of their Jewish neighbors when a man who is supposed to represent the highest ethical values of our religion walks? What does that say to the non-Jewish world about Jews and Judaism? Is all we do looking out for our own? And what about Tatsuo Nakata and his family? What do we say to them? “Sorry for your loss but we’ve got bigger fish to fry?”
As a Jew, this makes me sick:
Some 100 letters supporting Schwartz were sent to the judge, and supporters spoke about his care and support. He told the court that as a result of publicity about the case, he’s also received anti-Semitic mail.
One of Schwartz’s congregants, Carmen Crincoli, said that on Yom Kippur last September it was agonizing to watch Schwartz’s prayers go on and on, evidence, he believed, of the rabbi’s inner turmoil. He begged the judge not to incarcerate Schwartz.
…When speaking to the court, Schwartz at times was tearful and said that a DVD of Nakata’s life — sent to him by Nakata’s family — rests beside his bed.
“It haunts my night,” he said. “Those thoughts were with me on Yom Kippur.”
What does Schwartz expect–a medal? What does he expect people to think of us when justice metes out a slap on the wrist merely because you serve the Jewish community?
The judge’s leniency was astonishing. And his legal logic entirely lacking:
“Regardless or not if he’s a good person,” Holifield said, “he’s a lousy driver.”
“Lousy driver?” Try lethal driver. Yet this judge allows Schwartz to get back behind the wheel of a potential murder weapon in two years time. What was George Hollifield thinking when he devised this sentence? Don’t you think the least he could’ve done was ensured that no Seattleite would ever be run down again by this man? Would someone in Seattle start a campaign to recall this judge? Or at least get someone elected in his place the next time he comes up for election. This guy shouldn’t be on the bench if he can’t mete out a fair punishment.
And please, Seattle city attorney, appeal this ruling. It cries out for it.
One final note of humility here: Ephraim Schwartz did something that any one of us drivers could’ve done on a bad day. Anyone who drives day to day in a big city understands just how easy it would be to hit a pedestrian. A moment’s lapsed attention or distraction and there but for the grace of God go I. So I don’t want to come across as someone incapable of making the same human error this rabbi made. But the difference is that I would be humiliated to have my entire religious community mount an intense campaign on my behalf seeking to eliminate any serious punishment for my crime. That’s what makes Rabbi Schwartz’s behavior and that of his Orthodox community so reprehensible.
21 thoughts on “Orthodox Seattle Rabbi Kills Pedestrian, Serves No Time – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Why does your header say “Orthodox Rabbi” , or “Rabbi” at all? What does that have to do with anything? What would you say if your local newspaper ran a headline something like “Drunk Mexican driver guilty of hit and run accident?”
As a non-motorist myself, I very much appreciate this post, but the incident described here is not exactly unique. More often than not, motorists who kill pedestrians in America get off without any punishment at all (and maybe it’s that way in other countries as well). I’m not sure what can be done to change this situation, given that America worships the car and puts the motorist on a pedestal.
I see that Nakata was killed while crossing a street via a crosswalk. This raises a very important point: it is simply false that crossing at a crosswalk is safer than jaywalking.
If it were up to me, Schwartz would have to forfeit his driving privileges for the rest of his life. Driving is very much a privilege, and not a right.
i completely agree with you
Bar Kochba: But there are countless headlines such as “Catholic Priest Accused of Molestation,” “Rabbi Accused of Embezzlement,” etc. Schwartz got out of jail time BECAUSE he took advantage of his rabbinical title to claim to the judge that he played an indispensable leadership role in his Orthodox community. The judge bought this bull. Hence the fact that he was a rabbi was integral to the story. If he was not a rabbi he would have done jail time.
Schwartz got out of jail time BECAUSE he took advantage of his rabbinical title to claim to the judge that he played an indispensable leadership role in his Orthodox community.
I didn’t see anything in the article that said that he did that, but that is almost an aside. These stories happen daily. It doesn’t make or mean that it is right, but the story is not unusual.
The question is what is an appropriate punishment.
As a person who came within several centimeters of being struck – hard – by a car driven by a speeding Hasidic driver (a teacher in a near-by yeshiva) who decided to do a quick turnaround in the small parking lot of my antiques business, simply swerving in and swerving out with incredible reckless disregard before speeding away, I am more than sympathetic with the members of the Nakata family. The victim is no less dead than if he had been gunned down, and given the driver’s history, I think permanent revocation of license should be the least of it; he should do hard time in prison, if you ask me. Often, it seems to me, holy men of whatever persuasion do tend to get gentle legal treatment, whether their offense is pedophilia or vehicular homicide.
Andy has written, “(and maybe it’s that way in other countries as well.)” I only know a bit of one other country’s vehicular laws, France, where I worked for several years. One of my colleagues was a lovely young lady, highly intelligent, educated, upstanding. Driving home at dusk one time at slow speed during a steady drizzle, she struck and killed an elderly man who had stepped off the curb in the middle of a block right into the path of her car. In accordance with standard judicial practice in such a case, she was guilty until proven otherwise. She went through unmitigated hell, and many testimonies, witnesses, and legal arguments later, she was finally exonerated of her “crime”. In France, at least at that time, the pedestrian reigned supreme. This is of course only one limited example, but I completely agree with Richard Silverstein’s observation that “Schwartz got out of jail time BECAUSE he took advantage of his rabbinical title to claim to the judge that he played an indispensable leadership role in his Orthodox community.” Inconvenient though it may be, Tatsuo Nakata is still dead through the indifference or recklessness or carelessness of a repeat-offender driver – period.
If I made the laws, Ephraim Schwartz would be prohibited from ever driving a motor vehicle again. He can walk, or he can take the bus, but he would not ever drive again. This would perhaps inconvenience him, but that is a small price to pay. He would be warned (in advance) that if he ignored the sentence and drove again ( and if he were caught doing so ) then it would be life in prison with no chance of parole, and he would have to work hard to more than earn his keep so that he would not be a burden on taxpayers. But, in fact, Ephraim Schwartz will be driving again in two years, if not sooner, and I expect to read another story about him driving recklessly again.
I’m sorry that this happens everywhere. I don’t think that any religious accoutrement or title should spare somebody from justice. I can bend for first timers, but this stretches it too far. This goes for court officers and politicians and their families.
Why does anybody talk on the phone while driving? Studies have shown that it impairs your judgment and response as much as alcohol.
I’m staying out of the whole ‘he’s a rabbi so he got off’ controversy. Just had to pipe up about phoning and driving. Pull over if the call is that damned important.
Jack: There is much more about this in the pages of our local Jewish paper, the JTNews. That’s where the “special pleading” by Schwartz & his community on his behalf happened. I’m sure those 100 ltrs. written to the court in his favor document my claim quite fully.
I live in Israel. Reason? First: Jerusalem is, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan alav ha shalom put it, “the eye of the universe.” Second: I believe that in order to be qualified to render a credible opinion on the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” it is critical to have one’s feet on Israeli soil. Otherwise, we render ourselves armchair politicians.
I came to this conclusion in November, 2005 while touring Israel with a solidarity mission from the Seattle Kollel, where I was a student. The leader of our mission trip: Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz.
Now: I would like to applaud the comment above that quotes, “There but for the grace of G-d go I.” I shudder to think how many near-misses happen every minute on our streets and highways.
And: I think I am better qualified to comment on this matter than many, since I am a survivor of a near-fatal bicycle-versus-automobile accident. I still have epileptic seizures as a result of the brain injury I suffered in that accident over 40 years ago.
In fact, it was Rabbi Schwartz and his family who took me into their home during a time when I was very sick from my seizure disorder and without housing. Along with my seizure detection dog, a large and harmless German Shepherd, of whom the Schwartz children were so frightened they would not come downstairs. Because I was in need, I was taken care of. By Rabbi Schwartz and his family. They sacrificed half of their house for over a month so that I could have a warm dry place where I was welcome and treated like a valued human being.
As a direct result of that care and kindness, I was able to get my life back on track. To get the medical help I needed. To get healthy again. To make Aliyah to Israel. To live my principles in real life.
No, Rabbi Schwartz’s many, many acts of kindness will not bring back the man he accidentally killed with his vehicle. And I’m certainly not trying to minimize the seriousness of the crime, or make any comment whatsoever on the process of justice in the case. I’m not trying to minimize his previous driving record, or pass judgement on whether he should or should not be allowed to drive.
I’m not a judge. Not even an armchair lawyer.
I am, however, a life that Rabbi Schwartz has directly helped to save with his goodness and kindness. If that counts for anything.
And by the way–there are many others whose lives have been literally salvaged by Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz. Some of them are among the other 99 people who wrote letters on his behalf.
honestly “chick” i will speak against this because i think you would feel as others did if you knew the guy!
what if he was your family member?
That is quite a naive & ill-informed opinion which I utterly reject. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh. We are all interconnected. I care about Israel therefore I will write about it.
Clearly, Rabbi Schwartz treated you with utmost kindness & truly observed the mitzvah of showing gmilut chesed to you. I don’t doubt the fine good deeds he has performed on behalf of you & others. But would he have done so if the sufferer’s name was Tatsuo Nakata? Of course not. And why not? Which goes to the issue of why Rabbi Schwartz & his community seem to believe that Mr. Nakata’s life is worse less than their own Jewish lives. Why should the rabbi receive special treatment merely because he is dedicated to helping Jews? Think how many people Mr. Nakata could have helped had he lived. Why should I give more weight to the former than the latter?
No one can know how he or she would react were they in Schwartz’s shoes, but I think if it were I, I would think that I had a proper punishment coming to me & I would try to accept it rather than organizing an entire community to prevent my receiving a proper punishment. I don’t know why Judge Hollifield decided to let Schwartz off so lightly, but clearly he was deeply impacted by the campaign on Schwartz’s behalf. And this campaign helped Schwartz but hurt both the Nakata family & the impression of the Jewish community in the greater Seattle community. We look like a group that only looks out for its own & cares little for the damage our members inflict on non-Jews.
What’s more troubling is that some members of his congregation bought a car to replace the one he wrecked in this accident. A driver or stack of pre-paid taxi fares would have been a smarter idea. What are we to make of a community that cares so little as to enable him to continue in his irresponsible ways?
Yes, Paul that’s precisely right. It’s like giving a guy another gun after he’s shot & killed someone. In addition, Raining in Ktula has uncovered research that Schwartz has had TEN moving violations in THREE states since 1999! He’s a driving time bomb just waiting to explode yet again.
ok i know it seems wierd for someone my age to be commenting so late but ive done alot of research on this and it really upsets me. I’ve really thought about what paul said and if he got a new car, can i have my uncle back? no i cant so what the hell? he did not deserve a car better yet he didnt deserve nothing and why does Liebe Feiga from Jerusalem talk about him taking her in? what does that have to do about anything?! its true that he shouldve got jail time he deserves it and better yet bringing his pregnant wife to court to soften the judge up. oh boo-hoo your wifes pregnant big deal? do i seem harsh? i dont care the matter is that schwuartz got away with killing my uncle that i cared about and for him to get away with it? i dont think so. so schwuartz must be happy that he got away with it. im not racist or anything i just think we need a better justice system!
I don’t think you’re racist. But I do think that the defenses of Schwartz by members of his Jewish community were heartless. I am so sorry for your loss and wish that Rabbi Schwartz could be removed from our streets, at least as a driver, for the rest of his life. It’s the least the State could do. But the judge refused to do even that. It was a horrible verdict.
thats true but i dont think he should of even got off that judge should be replaced!!
If I were you I would note when he’s up for re-election & campaign against him. Write ltrs. to the newspaper telling the world about the miscarriage of justice he allowed. Judges like that should be thrown out of office.
i understand completely, i think he got off to easy and shouldve got a longer time.
its about time for tatsuos birthday in july. so i want to hear from some of you. never forget him, hes helped us all weither you realize it or not. email: kayladoggy at hotmail dot com