Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

MARTIN GROSSMAN AND THE DEATH HOUSE

October 8, 2012

Note from director, Rhonda Moskowitz

I’m excited to be giving a presentation at LeMood in Montreal on the life and death of Martin Grossman. Here is the second in a series of blogs about him.

Mark Elliott, the amazing  executive director of Floridians For Alternatives To The Death penalty, (FADP), which is the Florida chapter of the NCADP, tirelessly  helped to spearhead the advocacy efforts to save Martin Grossman’s life.   Below is a compelling and eloquent essay written by Mark written in February, 2012.  It is well worth your time to read. Also, please feel free to share.

Martin Grossman on death row with his late mother, Myra

Martin Grossman and the Death House

by Mark Elliott, Exec. Dir. FADP

It has been one year since Florida’s execution of Martin Grossman.  Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) was a proud coalition partner in the Committee to Save Martin Grossman.  From around the world, thousands of letters, phone calls and petition signings were made beseeching then-Governor Charlie Crist to grant a 60 day reprieve to allow the Clemency Board to consider an application to commute Martin’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The many religious leaders, organizations and concerned individuals who took a brave stand for justice, tempered with mercy, should be proud.  It is not about those on Death Row and what they did…it is about US and what WE do.

Some of our current FADP coalition partners believe there is a place for the Death Penalty.  However, they acknowledge that the Death Penalty, as PRACTICED, falls well below the standards of ANY religious teachings.  As PRACTICED by government bureaucrats and ambitious politicians today, it is an abomination.  It is a practice that must end.

There have been at least 23 exonerations of wrongfully convicted people off Florida’s Death Row and 138 nationally.  It costs many times more money to try to execute someone than simply lock them up – diverting huge resources (an estimated $50 million per year in Florida alone) away from crime prevention, crime solving and crime victim’s families.  The Death Penalty gives too much attention to the perpetrator and not enough to victims and their families. We have maximum security prisons and there is the alternative sentence of life in prison with NO possibility of parole, thereby making prisoner killings unnecessary to protect the public.

What do those on Death Row in Florida and elsewhere have in common?  Yes, they have been convicted of murder.  But so have many thousands serving life sentences.

What sets them apart?  Most have some or all of the following in common:  They could not afford a lawyer.  They are severely mentally ill, now or at the time of their crime, or both.  They are intellectually disabled.  They are members of minorities.

Following Martin Grossman’s execution, then-Gov. Crist signed a Death Warrant for David Johnston to be the next prisoner executed in Florida.  David was indigent, intellectually disabled and diagnosed as severely mentally ill.  Prior to being convicted of murder, David Johnston was sent to the Leesville State School for the Retarded and his IQ tested as low as 57.  Although the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of Florida both prohibit the execution of the “mentally retarded,” prosecutors prevailed and he was sentenced to death.  Before his execution could be carried out, David Johnston died in prison on September 30, 2010.

It was the killing of another Jewish prisoner by the state that put me on the road to abolish the Death Penalty.  Ten years before Martin Grossman was executed, Terry Sims became the first Florida prisoner put to death by lethal injection.  I went to the execution vigil across the street from the prison to find answers as to why we were still killing prisoners, now that there was no chance they could ever be paroled.  A rabbi was leading a group in prayer and spoke to me of the unimaginable irony of choosing a Jew to be the first prisoner killed by lethal injection.  He explained that it was in Hitler’s Germany where this method of execution was first developed and it was used to kill Jews.  We were deeply troubled by the revival of this horrific legacy.  I made a vow to learn more about Florida’s Death Penalty program.  There is a saying, “The more you know about the Death Penalty, the less you like it.”  When I learned more, I stood up and began speaking out for abolition.

There is an abiding concern in most of us to uphold the laws of our state and nation.  Therefore, we must change the law.  Just because something has been legal doesn’t make it right.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

No government program should be permitted to forcibly kill captive prisoners.  We must take a stand.  We do not stand alone.  The specter of millions of executed prisoners in human history stands with us and urges us on.  “Qui tacet consentit” (silence implies consent).    Please stand up and speak out.

For it is time.  It is time to close the Death Houses for good.

Mark Elliott

Executive Director

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, FADP
P.O. Box 82943

Tampa, Florida  33612

727-215-9646

mark@fadp.org

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is a coalition of individuals and organizations united to abolish the Death Penalty in Florida.

FADP works to build a strong, diverse, statewide, grassroots movement which:

Opposes executions

Supports reforms aimed at reducing the application of the Death Penalty until it is ultimately abolished

Protects the humanity of all persons impacted by the Death Penalty

Educates Floridians about the Death Penalty

Provides concrete action steps for individuals and groups

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Aftermath of the Execution of a Jew

May 26, 2010

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

It’s been a little more than three months since Martin Grossman’s Feb. 16th execution. His last words were “Ahavat Israel,” meaning love of Jews.  Before Martin uttered these words, he recited the Shema, the watchword prayer of the Jewish faith. (Here O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one…”)   It’s traditional for a Jew to say the Shema  before he or she dies. How many Jews have uttered these words before they’ve been executed? This is unknown. It’s also unknown how many Jews in the United States  have been executed. I presume the numbers are few.  

Martin had a deep feeling for Judaism. He reconnected with his faith after ten years of virtual isolation in his 6 by 9 death row cell.  “I am an island of Judaism,” he wrote in a letter to his aunt, Rosol, during Hanukkah in 2008, 14 months before he died.

Grief, emptiness, disbelief and depression, pretty much describe my feelings about Martin’s execution over these last few months. If I feel traumatized, it’s almost unimaginable how both Martin’s family and the family of his victim, Peggy Park, feel.  I speak to Martin’s aunt, Rosol, several times a week and I know she feels indescribably horrible. Rosol never turned her back on Martin and wrote to him and visited him on Death Row up until the day he died. I don’t know how Peggy Park’s mother and brother feel. (Her father died.)  Do they feel a sense of justice and closure? Or do they feel empty? Martin’s execution did not bring Peggy Park back. From news accounts, Peggy’s mother and brother had been waiting for over 26 years for Martin to be executed. I personally don’t believe in the death penalty, but if there is going to be a state sanctioned murder of a murderer, it should be swift. 

As a filmmaker, I now have the challenge of documenting Martin’s redemption, (Teshuva), and showing his humanity without sanitizing the tragic murder he committed. It’s now time to get past my grief and move forward.

I didn’t know how much my documentary film meant to Martin until I read letters received by others. Seems like he intrinsinctly knew he had a lot to teach us. Paradoxically and astonishingly,  Martin, a murderer, died a Ba’al Teshuva.  

I’ve been given a monumental task, but I’m up to the challenge. I filmed Martin on Death Row four times, I’ve filmed his family for two years, and I have home movies from his childhood, newspaper articles and photographs. I also had the honor of filming Martin’s funeral and burial. I still need to document the tremendous advocacy efforts to save Martin’s life.  It’s  through my film, that Martin’s voice will be heard. He has a great deal to teach both Jews and non-Jews and the lessons are life-altering and profound.

Letter by Rabbi Menachem Katz about Martin Grossman and Jewish Prisoners

February 24, 2010

Rabbi Katz is the head of Jewish prisoner outreach at the
Aleph Institute. He is an incredible human being and changes the lives of many of our nation’s incarcerated Jews, including the late Martin Grossman.

Dear Friend,

I’m writing to you as one of over 34,000 people that signed the online petition to save Martin Grossman’s life. Another thirty thousand people also signed paper petitions as well. Tens of thousands of others called the Governor’s office and sent faxes and emails. In all, over one thousand people took steps to help save the life of another human being. I personally spent four hours with Martin on the day of his execution and I can tell you that this outpouring of love and warmth from the world Jewish community gave him comfort and strength. Martin passed away as a true Bal Teshuva, he took responsibility for his actions, expressed his most sincere remorse for his behavior and became a very humble and caring human being. Martin had no anxiety or fear of his imminent death because he knew about and felt the love that his brothers and sisters had for him around the world. By signing this petition you fulfilled the greatest Mitzvah in the Torah “To Love your Fellow Jew as yourself”. Martin requested that this show of unity and love amongst Jews from all walks of life should continue and not stop with his death. In fact the last he words he uttered in this world after Shema Yisroel were Ahavat Yisrael (Love of a fellow Jew). Martin’s Death was sad and unfortunate but you can make sure that it was not in vain.

There are four thousand Jewish inmates just in the United States. There are thousands of Jewish inmates in Israel and in other countries around the world. Martin created an awareness in the Jewish community of the plight of Jewish inmates in the penal system. To lift up the spirits of a Jew in prison is fulfilling “Love your fellow Jew as yourself” on the highest level. In one aspect, there is no worse situation that a human being can be in than prison. When one loses his or her freedom it is even worse than being sick because in prison you lose all control of your own life. A person may be in prison for committing a crime and may deserve to be there but we still have to help him or her and show them love and help them to mend their ways and return to society as law abiding and contributing members of society. The Aleph Institute has been working with and assisting Jewish prisoners for close to thirty years all over the United States.

We want to invite you to become a partner with us in this important Mitzvah. Please visit our website www.alephinstitute.org to learn more about what we do and how you can get involved. You may want to start visiting Jewish prisoners or become a pen pal or donate used or new books. How many of you have Jewish books at home that you no longer have any use for? Why should those books go to the garbage or be buried? There are many other ways that you can help and get involved. Some may just want to donate money to help Aleph fund the correspondence courses we offer or the printing of %u200Ethe books we publish and provide free of charge to Jewish prisoners. The one thing we should not do is to do nothing at all.

Thank you again for standing up and making your voice heard. The world needs more people like you who care and are willing to do something about it.

Rabbi Menachem Katz
The Aleph Institute
9540 Collins Ave
Surfside, FL 33154
mmk@alephinstitute.org
Phone: 305-864-5553
Fax: 305-864-5675
www.alephinstitute.org

Isolated Jewish Prisoner Receives Ray of Light

September 16, 2009

Note from director, Rhonda Moskowitz: 

The 24 year old  man we’re filming, Philip (Hebrew name Fivel), sent this blog at my request, and  writes with a great deal of heart and humanity. I’m committed to  giving him a voice before the film is released, where otherwise he would remain unheard. And what a voice he has!  He is one of the main people in my film, RETURN (TESHUVA).

Fivel’s Blog

Allow me to give a short geography lesson.  The location of my prison is in the middle of nowhere. The city is called Lake Butler, but I think over exaggeration had a hand in naming it– maybe Pond Butler, (lol).  Sorry, to the point:  In Pinellas County Jail I was  privy to Tefillin, kosher meals and weekly Torah service. None of the above are offered here. No Tefillin, not even a designated row in the chapel for prayer.

Okay, I made my bed. So independent study has been my method of spiritual renewal. I’ve had help from Rabbi Katz* (The Aleph Institute), my family, and another great rabbi, Rabbi Segal,** and I have been working diligently through Rabbi Segal’s publications (The Handbook For Jewish Spiritual Renewal and the Compendium to Talmudic and Ethical Torah Teachings.) Gentlemen and family, I thank you.  But I’ve had a long time without any physical conversation with someone like myself or a rabbi or any Jew for that matter.

Well about a month ago, I get called up to the officers station and they inform me that a chaplain ws here to see me.  I was not only shocked at the visit, but the reaction of who the visitor was, was in their eyes.

So, as I’m walking to the Visitor Park, I get interrogated by several officers about my religious beliefs; this in turn told me that a rabbi was here to see me.  When the staff was satisfied by my answers they permitted me into the Visitor Park. There stood a 21 year old post Yeshiva student ready to welcome me with smiles and open arms.

His name is Moshe Minsky and resides in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY. He was small in stature, large in enthusiasm. At one point of our hour visit, he wanted to dance like it ws Simchas Torah. The officer told him that “supervised” the visit was not so amused. Although I was.

We had a wonderful discussion, talking Midrashic tales and Talmudic thought comparison. And yes, he had Tefillin with him. Much to his delight I could put them on correctly and daven (pray) without assistance. He informed me that most of the Hews he’s seen didn’t have much of a clue how to dress them properly. He was happy, I was thrilled, and I wanted to thank him, Moshe Minsky, for dedicating his time and heart to warming up mine  in physical exile from my people.

On behalf of the Aleph Institute, I wanted to extend a deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Katz for arranging the visit as well.

So everyone, thank you for listening and hopefully some of these heartwarming experiences to me can move the hearts of you all, too. If there are questions or any related words you wish to ask me, you are surely entitled to leave a comment.

As we approach the High Holidays, I eagerly ask you all to do some Chesbon Ha Nefesh (Inventory of the Soul) and look at how we can improve for next year. We are daily getting closer to Moschiach (the Messiah) coming, and only positively observed mitzvot  will hurry him along.  Thanks for your time. May HaShem (G-d) guide you in all your endeavors.

A special thanks to Rhonda Moskowitz, producer and director, for walking with me every step of this epic. I love you.

Mom, dad, Josh, Rachel, Kelly, connor, Dana and all the Osnos’s. I love you guys, too. The Merchant family as well.

My cousin, Martin, in Union Correctional, *** I love you, cuz.

My Beshert, Courtney, and my two wonderful children, Elijah and Camden. I love you so much, I swear and I promise.

Shalom,

Fivel (Philly)

Directors Notes:

* Rabbi Menachem Katz is in charge of sending rabbis and Yeshiva students into prisons throughout our nation to work with incarcerated Jews.  For many Jewish prisoners, the people sent by Rabbi Katz are the only contact they have with fellow Jews, as you just read in Philip’s case.

**   I came upon Rabbi Arthur Segal and his two Jewish Renewal books on the internet by happenstance. I thought Philip might benefit from them and e-mailed the rabbi. Rabbi Segal, out of the goodness of his heart, extended a helping hand. He arranged to send his two books to Philip in prison, at no charge, and is now working intensely with Philip, as a spiritual guide to help Philip lead a righteous life. Toda Raba to Rabbi Segal!  Check out his books.

Gail (“There but for the Grace of God go I…”)

December 16, 2008

When I first met Gail, her twenty-three year old daughter, Dana,was incarcerated, one month away from giving birth to her second child, her other daughter, Michele, was one week out of rehab, and her son, Max, was soon to graduate from 8th grade at his Jewish day school. Talk about stress! Dana had also attended Jewish day school. My own daughter went to Jewish day school and Gail and her children could be any “typical” middle class Jewish family. I look at Dana and hope and pray that what happened to her never happens to my daughter. I look at Gail, and think “There but for the grace of God go I.” This scares the hell out of me.  

 

Dana’s Oxycontin addiction shattered her life and her family’s, and our film is documenting their struggles.  I’m deeply touched and extremely grateful that Gail and her wonderful family have opened up their lives to us as filmmakers. Gail could not have been more warm and welcoming to us from the moment we met her and she continues to be this way.

 

The birth of Dana’s baby was a mixed blessing. On one hand, a brand new beautiful baby granddaughter came into this world.  On the other hand, she was born in a prison hospital. We’re all one step away from our lives falling apart. Addiction can happen to anyone.

 

I love Gail, Michele, Max and Dana. Their struggles could be any of our struggles. I hope our film, TESHUVA (RETURN) will take away the shame and stigma of addiction and also of incarcerated Jews. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

A Little Soul Cleansing

December 2, 2008

Some thoughts from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

 

I read with horror about the Black Friday stampede of 2,000 shoppers at a Long Island, New York Walmart that killed a 34 year old employee, Jdimytai  Damour. Tension built as people waited for hours to buy merchandise at bargain prices.  When the doors opened the crowd rushed in and a life was extinguished.  And for what?  A flat screen TV? A computer?  A camera?  To save a few bucks?  

 

Meanwhile, on Plum Island in Massachusetts, 79 year old widow, Geri Buzzotta’s ocean front house was deemed unsafe and demolished the night before Thanksgiving so it wouldn’t fall into the sea.  A couple of days later, she returned to the wreckage that was once her home.  After seventy-nine years of living and 57 years of marriage, all that Geri Buzzotta could salvage was a shoe, two spoons, a necklace and a green heart-shaped piece of glass. “Everything else was taken away, but love never dies,” was her remarkable reaction.

 

I think about how some of my film subjects live with only the bare basics in their prison cells. When they were arrested, cell phones, computers, cameras, nice clothes and whatever other stuff they possessed were suddenly taken away from them. Stuff they’ll only get back if or when they’re released.  

 

Famous ascetics such as Siddhartha Guatama, (Buddha) and Henry David Thoreau consciously chose paths to enlightenment by living basic lives and casting off material goods.  Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical, but fictional Ivan Denisovich  successfully transcended his harsh prison surroundings.

 

Living a life of forced austerity is part of the punishment prisoners face for their crimes. I hope the prisoners in my film Teshuva (Return) will use their lack of stuff wisely and take advantage of their spartan existence to cleanse their souls. Their incarceration could be blessings in disguise.

 

The prisoners lives could teach us all a lesson. We have gone astray, not by having committed crimes, but with our passionate embrace of materialism.  Perhaps we could make positive use of our disasterous economy and make some fundamental changes in our own lives.  After all, we can all use a little soul cleansing.  

 

WHO ARE YOU?

November 21, 2008

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

You are:

  • a prisoner
  • a drug addict
  • a thief
  • an adulterer
  • a sinner
  • an alcoholic
  • a murderer

We tend to define people who have gone astray in their worst moment where they remain stuck in our minds, sometimes for the rest of their lives. This is dehumanizing, especially if the person is trying to turn their life around, make ammends for any harm they’ve done to others, and do Tikum Olam (repair the world). We also tend to look at people as “bad” or “good,” and these strict perceptions are why, especially in the case of public figures, we have fallen idols, or why we’re surprised when a revered person we know has feet of clay.

You are:

  • a mother
  • a father
  • a doctor
  • an accountant
  • a writer
  • a waitress
  • a rabbi
  • an activist
  • a minister
  • an environmentalist
  • a poet
  • a husband
  • a wife
  • an entrepreneur
  • a teacher
  • a philanthropist
  • a son
  • a daughter
  • a student
  • helpful
  • compassionate

People are not all black and white, they’re complicated, multi-dimensional and contradictory.  There are many shades of gray and many facets to an individual. It diminishes us to perceive and define people narrowly.

In the course of making TESHUVA (RETURN), so much of what I know about people has been turned inside out and upside down.

It is my hope that when viewers see the film, their minds will expand, and the way we look at ourselves and others as people will never be the same again.

Dana, Phil and Addiction

November 15, 2008

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

We are following  Dana and Phil, who are the young Jewish parents of three year old, Elijah. Both Dana and Phil were incarcerated during most of Elijah’s second year of life. You can see their photographs on the photos page of the film’s web site.

We first filmed 23 year old Dana when she was in a maximum security prison, one month away from giving birth to her daughter. This prison is the only state facility that houses pregnant females. How did Dana, who was born to a middle class Jewish family, a successful student and editor of her high school newspaper, end up pregnant and incarcerated?

Phil had been released from jail the day before we first filmed him. Handsome, charismatic and intelligent, he has a strong spiritual connection to Judaism and had been working with a Rabbi  while incarcerated to help himself change. Phil had stolen from his aunt and a few days before his release, his aunt unexpectedly passed away. The Rabbi, who coincidentally had performed Phil’s Bar Mitzvah 10 years before, had plans to continue to work with Phil after his release. However, a short time after Phil got out, the Rabbi suddenly died. These two monumental losses sent Phil into a downward spiral of loss, grief and guilt.

Both Phil and Dana struggle with addiction to Oxycontin. The drug ‘s addictive powers are enormous. Oxyncontin shattered their lives and their families lives. They’ve betrayed and hurt their loved ones and also committed crimes out of desperation to get ahold of this terrible drug.

Our film is just as much a film about drug addiction as it is a film about Jewish prisoners. There is addiction in my family and also in the cinematographer, Sean’s family. Some of our film shoots are so harrowing, I don’t know how Sean can even hold the camera.

Dana and Phil are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. They also have a wonderful young son and Dana has a baby daughter.  I hope they can mend their broken lives.  I’m rooting for them.

Jewish Prisoners, A Startling Concept

November 14, 2008

Teshuva is a Judaic concept of redemption and return to God and one’s essential self. As Rabbi Mark Borovitz a former prisoner, who now runs the amazing Beit T’Shuvah states, “Teshuva was put into the world, because God knew that humans would get lost and make mistakes. God knew that we would need a way back.” Rabbi Borovitz should know. He’s the living embodiment of someone who experienced redemption, underwent a transformation and continues to do Teshuva everyday.

TESHUVA (RETURN) is a documentary fim-in-progress about three generations of two Jewish families, and each family has members who are or have been Jewish prisoners.  When I tell people I’m making a film about Jewish prisoners, most people think I’m making a film about the Holocaust. The fact that there are Jews who currently reside in our nation’s prisons is a startling concept. Jewish prisoners are a hidden, isolated and ostracized segment of our nation’s Jewish population. However,  Jews can no longer be ostriches. We are our brothers keepers.  Ignoring Jewish prisoners and their stigmatized families diminishes us as people.

We tend to define people at their worst moments. People are not all black or white. We are many shades of grey. We grow and change and are capable of mending our brokeness. We all have the capacity to experience redemption and undergo a transformation. It is my hope that the documentary film TESHUVA (RETURN) will expand peoples consciousness and change the way we view one another and ourselves.

Rhonda Moskowitz, Producer/Director