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.