Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, director of the West Seattle Torah Learning Center who was convicted of assault last month for accidentally hitting and killing Matthew “Tatsuo” Nakata with his car, will not be going to jail, much to the relief of his friends, family and students.
Instead, Seattle Municipal court Judge George Holifield gave the Rabbi a two-year deferred sentence. During those two years, Schwartz will not be allowed to drive (he can reapply for his license one his sentence is over) and he must compensate the Nakata family for any outstanding out-of-pocket medical or funeral expenses. Schwartz must also perform 500 hours of community service, which the judge stipulated should serve the community at large, not just the West Seattle Jewish community.
Defense attorney Diego Vargas indicated that Schwartz plans to acquire many of those hours by speaking to high school students as well as adult driving classes about the dangers of inattentive driving.
During the course of Schwatz’s February 28 sentencing, a parade of colleagues, followers and family gave statements, asking the judge not to send Schwartz to jail for any length of time for fear of the impact it would have on the Torah Learning Center. Schwartz faced up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine for striking Nakata, a Seattle City Council aide, with his car at a West Seattle crosswalk in November of 2006. Nakata died of his injuries shortly thereafter. Schwartz was on his cell phone when the accident occured. He also had a number of prior moving violations on his driving record at the time, including an incident in 2005 where he hit a cyclist on Interlaken Drive.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Kevin Kilpatrick noted that the city was seeking the maximum sentence.
“The city does not doubt that [Schwartz] feels real regret and remorse,” Kilpatrick said, “But at what point is enough enough?
Rabbi Avrohom David, director of the Seattle Kollel with which Schwartz’s West Seattle Torah Learning Center is affiliated was the first person to speak on Schwartz’s behalf.
“The Kollel and the West Seattle community simply can’t do with him,” David said of Schwartz.
This sentiment was echoed by a number of Torah Center regulars who spoke in court of how Schwartz had opened his home to them and helped to focus them more clearly in their observance of Judaism. Over 100 letters from members of the West Seattle Jewish community were sent to Holifield prior to the sentencing with similar messages in support of Schwartz.
Holifield, however, sited the impact jail time would have on Schwartz’s four young children as the primary reason for the deferred sentence. He was quick to point out that getting Schwartz off the road, at least for the time being, was his priority.
“The Rabbi, regardless of his involvement in his community and whether or not he’s a good person, is a lousy driver,” Holifield said.
Following the sentencing, David expressed relief concerning the judge’s decision, saying that he was “overwhelmed.” He did not comment on what would have happened to the West Seattle Torah Learning Center if Schwartz had been forced to leave his post to serve time in jail.
Members of Nakata’s family indicated that they were displeased by what they considered too lenient of a sentence.
“I hope to God someone is watching out for the next person he hits,” said Nakata’s mother, Sue Nakata. “Will ‘sorry’ still be enough?”