That members of the West Seattle Torah Learning Center sent Judge George Holifield 100 letters in support of Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz says something about their devotion to their rabbi. But was it the right thing to do?
Rabbi Schwartz was convicted in January of “assault–injury by vehicle” in the death of Tatsuo Nakata, a city council staffer that Schwartz hit with his car in November 2006. But the light sentence Schwartz received has made people angry — sparking discussion about whether the rabbi used his position to obtain leniency, whether Nakata’s death was in vain, and whether Schwartz should have been on the road at all.
Rabbi Schwartz’s sentence: no jail time, two years without a driver’s license, 500 hours of community service, and financial responsibility for all of Nakata’s hospital and funeral costs. But two years from now, assuming the rabbi doesn’t get behind the wheel, this blemish will be erased from his record and he will be eligible to reapply for his license.
Prior to the sentencing, I had heard from several people who wanted, at the very least, to see Schwartz permanently removed from the road. Given his dismal driving record both in this state and others — at least eight infractions that include hitting a cyclist — a permanent loss of driving privileges should not have been beyond the pale. As a frequent cyclist and pedestrian, I deal with drivers as inattentive as Schwartz all the time. So far, I’ve been lucky. Schwartz’s mistake could have been anybody’s.
While Nakata’s death was clearly an accident — the intersection is dangerous, no question about it — it’s a road Rabbi Schwartz drove often. He should have recognized that people use that crosswalk. And he should have thought twice, especially given his driving record, before deciding to talk on the phone while behind the wheel.
The aftermath of this tragedy has been very rough on Schwartz. Those closest to him say he has become a changed man since the day he hit Nakata, and he told me himself that he’s been living inside his own personal hell, which in some ways can be worse than sitting in a cell.
Were he to spend a year incarcerated, Schwartz would likely emerge a hardened man, someone even further removed from the gregarious personality that so endeared him to his congregants before the accident. Still, his community’s support hasn’t done him any favors.
At the sentencing, the courtroom was packed with congregation members — many more than came to sit with the Nakata family, the victims of this tragedy. And nearly a dozen stood up to tell the judge how indispensable Schwartz is to West Seattle’s Jewish community. Perhaps. But why is a community that expresses regret for Nakata’s death also chipping in to buy the young man’s killer a used car, as some Torah Learning Center members did late last year? Where’s the indignation within the congregation? Buying that car puts a man who clearly should not be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle exactly where he doesn’t belong. When Rabbi Schwartz gets his license back two years from now and has another accident (and with eight prior infractions, it’s reasonable to speculate), will those members of the center be partly responsible?
Rabbi Avrohom David, the head of the Seattle Kollel, of which the West Seattle Torah Learning Center is a part, spoke to the judge of the importance of Rabbi Schwartz’s presence in his community. While Nakata’s death was a personal matter for Ephraim Schwartz, bringing his community and his employers to court to plead for leniency makes it very much a part of his professional life. Kollel officials have told JTNews that they take their employees’ driving records seriously. They need to stand behind their words and restrict Schwartz’s travel on Kollel business. The Kollel should not make it tempting for Schwartz to have to drive anywhere.
Publicly disciplining Schwartz within his community could help to alleviate the anger that sparked such comments as were posted, for example, on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Web site. Most were harsh — some justifiably so. But postings such as this: “I know the holocaust was a bad thing, but enough of giving the Jewish people and the jewish [sic] run media a free ride to murder” to comparing Schwartz to imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff show that anti-Semitism will bubble up any chance it gets. The televised spectacle of the Learning Center’s rallying around the rabbi to protect his position sends a message, whether conscious or not.
As local blogger Richard Silverstein put it: “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?... 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?’”
Judge Holifield, in meting out the sentence, said nothing about the rabbi being a rabbi in his decision, but the courtroom full of congregants and the letters that filled his mailbox had to have had some effect. The judge cited the traumatizing effect imprisonment would have on the rabbi’s family as his reasons for letting Schwartz walk free. We should hope that Schwartz’s position as a rabbi didn’t influence the judge’s decision. But we’ll never truly know.