Last Words

The mood was somber in the downtown Manhattan offices of Agudath Israel of America, where I work, as 6:00 PM loomed large this past Tuesday, February 16. That was the time designated for Martin Grossman’s execution.

Mr. Grossman, a 45-year-old Jewish man, had been convicted of killing Margaret Park, a Florida Wildlife Officer, in 1984, when he was 19 years old, and was sentenced to death. Agudath Israel and other organizations representing the full spectrum of American Orthodox Jewry – as well as many other groups – appealed to Florida Governor Charlie Crist to spare Grossman’s life and allow him to serve a life sentence instead.

While acknowledging the horror of Grossman’s crime and expressing their deepest sympathy for the family of his victim, the advocates stressed that the murder had been an act of panic, not planning; that Grossman’s low IQ and impaired mental state were not given proper recognition in his death sentence; and that Grossman had not only conducted himself as a model prisoner since his incarceration some 25 years ago but showed profound remorse and regret for his actions.

As the appointed hour grew closer, some Agudath Israel staff members quietly recited Psalms. Others just waited, hopefully, for news that the execution had been cancelled or postponed. Agudath Israel’s executive vice-president, Rabbi David Zwiebel, was on the phone with the Rosh Agudath Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who had called to offer his encouragement and appreciation for all that Agudath Israel had done to try to prevent the execution.

Indeed, in the week or two prior to the execution, much energy was invested in the campaign to spare Martin Grossman’s life. Constituents were mobilized to telephone, fax and e-mail Florida Governor Crist to ask him to commute Grossman’s sentence to life in prison. Religious leaders, government officials and prominent businessmen from outside the Jewish community were enlisted in the effort as well.

Unfortunately, to no avail. Mr. Grossman was executed as scheduled.

Governor Crist said that his office had received nearly 50,000 e-mails, phone calls and letters urging him to commute the death sentence. But, he said, he had “reached the conclusion that justice must be done.”

Some people, even within the Jewish, even the Orthodox, community, are upset that Agudath Israel and others had made efforts to save Mr. Grossman’s life. Some of the objectors simply feel that someone who killed another person, no matter the circumstances, should himself be killed. Others worry about how it would look to the larger world that Orthodox Jews were “defending” a death-row inmate.

In a Gannett newspaper in Florida, the Ft. Myers News-Press, columnist Paul Fleming indeed waxed cynical about the Orthodox groups’ efforts. “These folks,” he wrote, “are welcome to fight against Grossman’s execution for whatever reasons they choose.”

“However,” he continued, “when the next death warrant is signed and the next of Florida’s 394 death-row inmates is scheduled for execution, I expect… those who oppose Grossman’s sentence to once again… ask the governor for a stay. We’ll see.”

New York Jewish Week columnist Adam Dickter blogged: “It didn’t much matter to Peggy Park that she was killed by someone who had a bar mitzvah. Why does it matter to Agudah?”

What Mr. Fleming and Mr. Dickter don’t fully appreciate, though, is that there is nothing for a Jew to be ashamed of in seeking to aid another Jew (bar-mitzvahed or not). To a believing Jew, every other Jew, no matter how ignorant or personally unobservant, is a relative – a member of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish Family. And when a family member is in danger, even the critics surely realize, one goes to special lengths.

Ahavas Yisrael, the love each member of the Jewish people is to have for all other Jews, is not only a halachic mandate, it is a tangible reality among observant Jews. Among the tragedies inherent in the relinquishing of the Jewish religious tradition within so much of the Jewish community is the decay of the very concept of Jewish Peoplehood. Lip service is readily paid to the phrase. But for any Jew whose heart is imbued with what it means, there can be only one reaction to the impending death of a fellow Jew: anguish. And a determination to attempt, no matter how futile it might seem, to stave it off. If love isn’t compelling in such circumstances, it has little hope to be manifest in daily life.

After the Jewish groups issued their call to try to save Mr. Grossman’s life, messages from caring individuals streamed into our offices. Jews from across the community were asking for contact information for the Florida governor and wanted to know what else they could possibly do to help save Mr. Grossman. They knew nothing about him beyond the fact that he had committed a terrible crime and was facing execution. And that he was Jewish, a brother.

News reports described Mr. Grossman’s last moments and words. “I would like to extend my heartfelt remorse to the family of Peggy Park,” he said. “I fully regret everything that happened that night… whether I remember everything or not. I accept responsibility.”

And then he recited the first verse of the Shma: “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.”

A witness to the execution reported further that Mr. Grossman added two words before the lethal injection was administered.

I shuddered when I read them: “Ahavas Yisrael.”

© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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26 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I hope our leaders (and followers) make sober, informed decisions about our priorities in pressuring local, state, and national governments about issues of concern. Our influence is finite, so we need to pick our spots.

    The less we need from government, and the more we can do for ourselves with HaShem’s help, the better our interactions with government will be.

  2. Chaim Fisher says:

    Again and again we act so as to come across in the worst possible light. Especially in this case, when it was perfectly clear that the Jewish community’s request was going to go nowhere. They obviously just wanted to ‘load the boat’ against the governor and others before the inevitable. This kind of baiting of antisemitism is highly risky.

  3. cvmay says:

    The weeks and days leading up to the execution of Martin Grossman were full of tefillah groups, texting messages, emailing requests, letter writing and a slew of calls to the governor of Florida. In order to understand the full picture of WHY this entire campaign may have been misconstrued, please read the latest editorial in the Five Town Jewish Times by Rabbi Yair Hoffman on this subject matter.

  4. Dave says:

    What is Agudath Israel of America’s position on the Death Penalty?

  5. Contarian says:

    I believe in simplicity.

    The punishment according to Torah law for what Martin Grossman did is meesah bedei shamayim. It can be argued that on 2/16/2010, Divine Justice was carried out.

    Shefichas Daamim is not something that can be swept under the rug. The blood of the murdered cries out heavenward from the grave. I learned this in Cheder.

  6. Ori says:

    Shua Cohen: Some of Torah Judaism’s religious and political top guns, both in America and Israel, were mobilized into action in this case.

    Ori: How big is the Orthodox community in Florida? Unless it is a sizable voting bloc, why do you expect Orthodox leaders to have more influence than Baha’i or Mormon leaders? From the perspective of a gentile not member of these faiths, their leaders are roughly equivalent to those of Torah Judaism.

  7. David says:

    I, too, had hoped that Martin’s life would be spared. Still, this campaign was troubling for 2 reasons. First, as other commenters mentioned, it makes us look terrible, as people who care about only our own and nobody else.

    But beyond that, the “martyr” status that Grossman has achieved is grossly undeserved and exaggerated. True, he didn’t deserve to die, but he was no saint. Why did hundreds throng to his funeral, and now people from all over the world are rushing to learn mishnayos for him? Of course, going to a levaya and learning mishnayos are great things, but why does he deserve such special treatment?

  8. Mordechai says:

    A murderer is not my brother. Someone who commits a heinous crime has to be cast out, or at least kept at a significant distance from us.

    Grossman’s alleged death-row conversion (no atheists in foxholes) and parroting the words ‘ahavas yisroel’ taught to him by the lubavitcher with him, have been given much too much credence here, as has the claim that he was mentally retarded (evidently he wasn’t retarded enough to become a big tzaddik and baal tshuvoh in the eyes of his admirers, something that is somewhat difficult to understand). It is a pity that Agudah nowadays doesn’t have someone like Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l to give them real daas Torah about how to relate to ‘frum’ crooks (spit them out).

  9. Tuvia says:

    These are pretty easy cases to call: of course, do not put a fellow Jew to death. Love of all Jews is a basic thing to Judaism.

    However, it reminds me of what I guess is the corollary idea: no particular love of mankind. A light unto the nations, ok. But don’t anticipate Agudath coming out against the death penalty in general. When a Jew is at stake, that is another story.

    This is (and I say this with a lot of respect for Judaism) somewhat tortured logic. And it does have the effect of reminding non-Jews that we simply don’t see their lives as having much importance.

    It is hard to gain the respect of people who are painfully aware that you simply find their survival a trivial matter, but the life of a Jew (and in this case, one convicted of murder) of critical importance.

    I know we believe anti-semitism is a big problem in this world; this is perhaps though an example of one decent reason gentiles may have for not particularly loving us.

  10. Dr. E says:

    I think I must be missing something here. The all-out email blitz from the Agudah that made its way to my Inbox the week before the execution. The high drama “war room” picture that Reb Avi paints with Tehillim and the Novominsker Rebbe. Without getting into the merits of this case, yes, it was to help another Jew in an attempt to spare him from having his life taken. But, pulling out the heavy artillery for what was likely to be a bracha l’vatala? This is not the (pragmatic) Agudah with which I am familiar–neither in substance nor style. What was driving this? And if this is indeed the “New Agudah” brand, where is the Suggestion Box for us to submit other “Ahavas Yisrael” issues that will be given this level of attention?

  11. Lion of Zion says:

    Grossman was sitting on death row for more than two decades. Why didn’t all the Orthodox organizations start speaking up back then? What happened since his original sentencing that suddenly made these orgaznizations so concerned for his life?

    Also, Grossman was not the first Jew on death row, so why the sudden interest in his case?

  12. Mark says:

    Yeshivishe Liberal,

    “Perhaps Rabbi Shafran can convene a special round-table at the next Agudah Convention.”

    Whatever your feelings on the subject of discussion, this line is immature and uncalled for. Why not state your objection and leave out the silly “shtochs?” Has Rabbi Shafran resorted to using them that you feel you must in return?

  13. Concerned Agudist says:

    While I remain deeply ambivalent about the extraordinary effort used to procure the granting of clemency for Martin Grossman, one thing does bother me profoundly – that this is the first time in memory I saw the Agudah make a full court press to advocate on an issue. Is this the most important issue we face as a community? What about advocating for the victims of sexual abuse?

    Is this the singular issue the Agudah can get together with these other organizations? Are there not a myriad of critical issues facing our greater orthodox community that need attention?

    Rather than simply referencing the last words of Martin Grossman, let’s see the Agudah live them.

  14. Miriam says:

    I’m skeptical that Mr. Grossman’s final message of remorse would be such a complicated one, if his IQ is so low.

  15. Menachem Lipkin says:

    I believe that R’ Shafran has largely missed the concerns of many of those of us who were uncomfortable with the campaign initiated by the Agudah and others to commute Grossman’s sentence.

    One issue is the glaring hypocrisy of this effort. The orthodox community is overwhelmingly politically conservative. The more to the “right” one moves in the community the more this is so. Support for the death penalty is a default position of conservative politics in the U.S. Though their are naturally exceptions, it is quite common to hear this support voiced among members of our community. Regardless of the official position on the death penalty of the major orthodox organizations, the mobilization of 50,000 of their constituents to fight Grossman’s execution, simply because he’s Jewish, points a glaring spotlight on our selfishness and duplicity.

    Imagine, as a quid pro quo for his support in this case, the Pope calls up Rav Perlow next week to ask him to support a stay of execution for a Catholic man on death row who was convicted with similar mitigating circumstances. Would Rav Perlow mobilize the “troops” of the Agudah? What if the victim in this case was a frum mother of 10? Would the Pope’s lip-service of his “deepest sympathy for the family of his victim” make a difference? Even if Rav Perlow would be so inclined, he would be able to muster more than a handful of emails to support such an action.

    Another issue is the crass insensitivity that this mobilization showed, not just to Margaret Park’s mother and family, but to the vast majority of Americans. And this is not just a “worry about how it would look to the larger world”. This shows a basic lack of feeling and understanding for the way most of our fellow Americans perceive the situation.

    Yes, by birth, Martin Grossman is our “brother” and there are certain obligations which that brings. These obligations could have been quite adequately fulfilled by a modest, low-key, respectful letter from the heads of our organizations to governor Christ. However, Margaret Park, by virtue of choosing to put her life on the line to protect our public safety, earned a place as our “sister”. The spectacle of a mass campaign, with its unleashing of a number of predictable nut-cases, to save her murderer initiated by the orthodox leadership acts as a huge slap in the face to all those who feel similarly about Ms. Parks and all those who risk their lives to protect us. And I guarantee you that if I, as an orthodox Jew not even living in the U.S. feels this way, millions upon millions of regular Americans certainly do. And unlike me, those Americans only saw Grossman as a brutal murderer not their brother.

    Rather than defensively dismissing the words of writers like Fleming and Dickers, R’ Shafran should have taken them to heart because instead of being perceived as reasoned rationalization of the behavior of the Agudah this essay will be perceived as salt in an open wound.

  16. Benji Madden says:

    I emailed Governor Christ a request to grant Martin Grossman clemency. Here is what he returned: “Thank you for contacting me and sharing your concerns about the execution of Martin Grossman.On December 13, 1984, Mr. Grossman violated the terms of his probation by leaving Pasco County and having a stolen firearm in his possession. In a routine stop, Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer Margaret Park found the weapon. When she reached for the radio in her patrol car to report him, Mr. Grossman attacked her with her own large flashlight, beating her over the head and shoulders 20 to 30 times. When Officer Park tried to fight back, Mr. Grossman took her .357 Magnum revolver and shot her in the back of the head, killing her. Mr. Grossman took several carefully planned steps to cover up this horrible crime. The weapon was buried, and Mr. Grossman attempted to burn his clothes and shoes, which were later disposed of in a nearby lake. The following day, Mr. Grossman thoroughly cleaned the van and changed its tires to mislead law enforcement.Officer Park’s autopsy revealed lacerations on top of her head, hemorrhaging inside the scalp and extensive fracturing of the skull. All of these injuries resulted from Mr. Grossman’s attack. The facts of this crime clearly meet the definition of heinous, atrocious and cruel, and his actions afterward demonstrate his well-reasoned attempts to cover it up. The courts have fully reviewed Mr. Grossman’s legal claims, and his conviction and sentence have been affirmed by both the Florida Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. Based on the facts and exhaustion of legal proceedings, and in accordance with Florida law, I signed his death warrant on January 12, 2010. Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.”

    Why again did I write to save this man who viciously murdered an innocent park ranger who was just doing her job,because of Ahavas Yisrael? Just because you’re retarded (or whatever you want to say he was) does not mean you can kill people. Martin Grossman was obviously sane enough to try and hide what he did. I glad we have park rangers who are brave enough to defend regular law abiding citizens. I feel like a jerk for writing to save this guy.

  17. Fred says:

    And they all stand still while Rubashkin is shechted alive!

  18. Orthonomics says:

    Rabbi Shafran,
    With all due respect, you need to take some time to read the comments of the general public at VIN, YWN, and Matzav. To say that “the [organizations expressed] their deepest sympathy for the family of his victim” may be true. But the circus that has come out of this entire affair is just so painfully cruel and could have been avoided if the organizations involved worked in a quiet and modest fashion.

    And these comments are out there for the entire world to see as well as the Park family for which I shed tears. The comments regarding Governor Crist are also cruel and do not speak well of the frum community in the least.

    It is a shame that letters were not written quietly by in-house staff at the the Agudah, OU, NCYI, Aleph Institute, Satmar etc. Involving a loose cannon community was a monumental mistake. And to continue the affair with a grand funeral, rather than a modest funeral, I’m sure only rubbed salt in the Park family wounds.

    I think it is time to lay low, rather than add insult to injury.

  19. Leon Zacharowicz says:

    Tens of thousands of Jews and multiple organizations came together to try to save the life of this man.

    Will we come together as well to help the disabled among us?

    I refer of course to those completely innocent individuals of all ages–from the very young to the very old–whose doctors and nurses, sworn to heal and not to harm, instead seek to ‘withdraw’ life support, deeming their disabled patients’ lives as lives not worth preserving, under the pernicious doctrine of futile care theory (which derives from the secular philosophy of utilitarianism, who credo can perhaps best be summarized as ‘sacrifice the few to benefit the many’)?

    I urge all readers to read Dr. Joel Zivot’s “Baby’s Status as Human is on Trial,” published in the Feb. 19, 2010 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, wherein he recounts his action on behalf of Mr. Samuel Golubchuk, zl, and argues forcefully that our silence in the face of attempts by doctors in Edmonton to end the life of a disabled baby, against the wishes of the parents.

    Dare we be voiciferous on behalf of a man who once was not so innocent and yet be silent when the truly innocent are being threatened with involuntary euthanasia?

  20. Bob Miller says:

    We do not know if every other Jew facing the death penalty would have been supported by these organizations in the same massive way. Possibly, these groups viewed this case as special because of the convict’s low IQ and evident remorse.

  21. TK says:

    This truly breaks my heart. It’s especially terrible because of the circumstances: non-premeditated killing while under the influence of narcotics. What a sad day for mankind.

  22. Joe Hill says:

    Yasher Koach Rav Shafran. Extremely well-stated.

    The killing of Mr. Michoel Grossman a”h has brought many tears to my eyes.

  23. aron feldman says:

    While the efforts of the whole spectrum of Jewry is definitely praiseworthy,the actions of certain overzealous people in this case is very unsettling and bordering on insane.Why did the victims family receive threatening phone calls and why on certain web sites was Governor Christ accused of having anti -semitic intent? Is our chinuch system so lacking? Why was the salutation HY”D attached to Grossman’s name by certain people?

  24. Shua Cohen says:

    I am not writing this comment to either defend or criticize the actions of Agudath Israel, or the other Orthodox Jewish organizations and individuals who were involved in the ‘save Martin-Grossman’ campaign. What I do want to address is the stark reality that has become evident from this tragic affair, namely, that Orthodox Jewish influence on the American body politic is NIL.

    Some of Torah Judaism’s religious and political top guns, both in America and Israel, were mobilized into action in this case. Joining the chorus of Jewish voices pleading with Governor Crist were people of such prominence as Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz. And yet, what did is it all amount to? GORNISHT. Governor Crist, in an all together stunning display of indifference, swatted us off like an annoying insect.

    I am not a talmid chacham, I am do not have Da’as Torah…perhaps I can accurately be labeled an am ha’aretz. But I do believe that the Ribbono Shel Olam has sent us a clear and urgent message by this [and other onerous events of late]: “You are in golus…you are not a part of the American body politic…you are strangers in a foreign land…I will remind you with increasingly powerful messages that My purpose for you in your American golus is at an end…as you mean nothing to America, America should no longer have any meaning for you….it’s time for you to leave and come home.” When oh when are we (and our leaders here) going to get it?

  25. Reb Yid says:

    By their inaction on all other death row cases–no matter what the circumstances, no matter that an increasing number of these cases are being overturned by DNA evidence, etc.–and by their corresponding ‘full court press’ on this particular case–by the simple virtue of the fact that the defendant was Jewish, regardless of the circumstances, the institutionalized Orthodox world is sending a very bad signal to the rest of the world.

    Ahavat Yisrael is not a zero sum game. The people we live amongst are not vile goyim who want to destroy us. There is no reason why this case should not be a ‘teaching moment’ for the Orthodox world to re-examine capital punishment, to realize how fragile human life is, the utter finality of a death sentence with no chance for teshuva, the many ways that someone can ‘fall through the cracks’, etc.

  26. Yeshivishe Liberal says:

    Ahavas Yisroel is a wonderful concept, but I don’t know how the Orthodox community expected anyone to listen to them when they are only against the death penalty when it applies to Jews. Agudah didn’t have a word to say when their old buddy Governor George W. Bush was executing inmate after inmate on the Texas Death Row, including a mentally retarded prisoner. The idea of the death penalty in today’s society where can be often abused (and I don’t mean as prescribed by Torah law in a just and equitable society) should be an anathema to the Torah Jews (like the Gemara in Sanhedrin describes the infrequency of the death penalty). Instead, they have made their bed with right-wing conservatives and mock anti-death Penalty groups for being soft. Remaining insular and attentive to only Jewish needs shows a remarkable lack of compassion, an attitude that needs to be drastically reconsidered by the Frum community. Perhaps Rabbi Shafran can convene a special round-table at the next Agudah Convention.