Cantor Michael Zoosman said when he was growing up he was outraged by his grandmother’s stories of the Shoah. He resolved that anyone who would try to murder his family — or commit any type of capital crime — deserved to die.
Today, though, the College Park resident is the founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, its nearly 1,700 worldwide membership working to mobilize the community against capital punishment.
“With every cell of my being, and with every fiber of my memory, I oppose the death penalty in all forms,” said Zoosman, quoting the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, when discussing his feelings on the issue. “I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death.”
L’chaim has joined multi-faith demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court, “to chant Kol Nidre for the national sin of the death penalty,” said Zoosman, 41, a member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation. He also chants Psalm 23 during execution vigils held online, while offering traditional memorial prayers for the victims of those scheduled to be executed, asking “that no more blood be shed in their name.”
Zoosman also reaches out directly to those on death row. In one such message, Zoosman apologized on behalf of the government for its plans to end their life.
One death-row inmate who replied to Zoosman was Ramiro Gonzales, Zoosman said. Gonzales was sentenced to death for the 2001 rape and killing of Bridget Townsend in Medina County, Texas, according to the Texas Tribune. Gonzales confessed to Townsend’s murder in 2002, guiding police to her remains.
When Gonzales replied to Zoosman’s message in January 2021, it began a lengthy correspondence between the two men. And when Zoosman mentioned that a congregant at Adat Shalom needed a kidney transplant, Gonzales volunteered to donate one of his.
Gonzales turned out not to be not a match for the Jewish congregant, according to The Washington Post. But he still wished to donate his kidney anyway.
On July 11, two days before his scheduled execution, Gonzales’s request for a 180-day reprieve in order to have an operation and donate his kidney was denied by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Julia Brown, who coordinates media for Gonzales’ legal team, said in an email.
That same day, however, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution, due to concerns that an expert witness at Gonzales’s trial had given inaccurate information during testimony. As of July 18, Gonzales’s execution is indefinitely postponed, said Zoosman.
Ultimately, Gonzales was not a match for the Jewish congregant, according to the Washington Post. Zoosman added that two other people have been found to be a possible direct match for Gonzales’s kidney.
Zoosman’s said his journey along the Green Mile from death penalty supporter to opponent began at Brandeis University, when his roommate had a psychotic break and violently attacked and nearly killed someone.
The roommate ultimately was imprisoned in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Zoosman stayed in contact, and through his former roommate, Zoosman learned about prisoners who, had they been imprisoned in other states, might have ended up on death row for their actions.
Zoosman also learned that once-violent inmates often realize their mistakes and seek to atone for their crimes by contributing to society.
Zoosman said he worked as a Jewish prison chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada from 2009 to 2012, during which time he came to see the humanity of inmates.
He said he was outraged during “what [capital punishment] abolitionists call the Trump killing spree, when 13 men and women were put to death in the federal prison system, from [July] 2020 to [January] 2021, that I started taking it quite personally,” he said.
By that time he was working as a chaplain for a Maryland hospital. “I’m a hospital chaplain for an official agency, and I took it personally that my government was seeking to kill these people in my name.” He declined to name the hospital because, he said, it prefers not to be associated with his anti-death penalty work.
Zoosman said he also learned that the first lethal injection was implemented by the Nazi regime, and noted Arizona’s plans to potentially use Zyklon B, a gas used at Auschwitz to murder Jews.
“And it hit me personally, too, as someone whose grandmother is 101 and a Holocaust survivor, that we were continuing this legacy,” Zoosman said.
Zoosman said he is certain that Gonzales’s desire to donate his kidney is altruistic, rather than a way to stop his execution.
“I have no doubt that Ramiro will continue to pursue that and I pray that he will be able to fulfill his dying wish,” Zoosman said. “He had taken a life, an action that he cannot put into words how much he regrets, and he knows he can never make up for. … However, this is something he can do to give life.”
Zoosman and L’Chaim continue to stay in regular touch with Gonzales, he said in an email, adding that he hopes that Gonzales will ultimately be allowed to donate his kidney and have his sentence commuted.
Correction, July 22, 2022, 4:33 p.m. The article was corrected to state that Zoosman recites Psalm 23 during online execution vigils, as was information regarding Gonzales’s kidney testing as a match to two other possible recipients.