Rabbi Schwartz Needs Taxi Vouchers, Not a New Car

Is his community asleep at the wheel?

Last week, for the first time, the word "Nakata" appeared in the pages of Seattle's Jewish community newspaper, The JT News. The paper (formerly known as The Jewish Transcript) was reporting the conviction of Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz. A little over a year ago, Schwartz accidentally drove his 1991 Oldsmobile wagon into Matthew "Tatsuo" Nakata as the 29-year-old Seattle City Council aide crossed a West Seattle intersection on his way to work. Nakata died soon after. With a jury's verdict on Jan. 18, Rabbi Schwartz became the first person found guilty under a new law that allows the city to prosecute motorists who seriously hurt pedestrians—if the collision resulted from a traffic infraction of some kind. The fact that the Schwartz case, which has been unfolding for months, went unmentioned in the Jewish paper until now maybe isn't surprising. Every community tries to protect its own, and there's an especially strong ethic in Judaism against any kind of public dishonor or criticism. More remarkable is that amid the tears, expressions of sympathy for Nakata's family, and promises to appeal that followed the verdict, there was no mention—by the rabbi, his attorney, or his supporters—of any plans for him to, perhaps, stop driving. As readers of this paper know, Schwartz is something less than a smooth operator behind the wheel. As of last April, he had collected at least eight moving violations in as many years. In May 2005, he hit and seriously injured a bicyclist while driving up the wrong side of the road near Seattle Hebrew Academy. Two months after hitting Nakata, he was ticketed for running a red light. This is a man who has a problem. Yet you wouldn't know it from any public statements by the rabbi or any word from the Jewish community at large. The level of denial can be felt most strongly in a recent edition of the rabbi's e-mail newsletter, "Insights and Inspiration" (forwarded to the Weekly by an aghast reader), which contained the following passage: This week's Insights and Inspiration is sponsored by myself and Aliza Schwartz and the whole Schwartz family in appreciation of all our congregants who chipped in to surprise us was [sic] the most perfect "new" car!! The perfect Rabbi family car (an '82 colony park Mercury station wagon of course—my childhood dream). Particular thanks to [salesman name] of [car dealership name] for finding and kicking off this wonderful surprise. He is the best car salesman in the world and if anyone is even thinking of getting a car then give my favorite buddy [first name] a call at [number] and you will be delighted to find the warmest friendliest and most honest help you can count on. Thanks to all of you! Now the rabbi, by all accounts, has a very ebullient personality. I wouldn't presume to imagine what his private torment might be. Yet the tone here seems odd for someone just weeks away from a trial on charges of assault-by-car. Shouldn't his congregants have chipped in to buy him a year's worth of taxi vouchers? When I first learned that Rabbi Schwartz was the driver in this infamous case, I actually felt quite distraught for him. I happen to have studied with his organization, the Kollel. It's an international group, affiliated with Judaism's Orthodox movement, that promotes traditional Jewish learning and general community-building outside established synagogues. Like other religious groups specializing in "outreach," the Kollel welcomes the committed and devout as well as all manner of random explorers. In years past, I took several classes with the Seattle Kollel's executive director, a very lovely man, and even shared a meal at his home. A few months after the accident, I wrote to Schwartz (whom I've never met), seeking to interview him for the Weekly. I wondered: How does a person in his position of moral leadership deal with such a bewildering and catastrophic event? I mean, it's obvious this kind of thing can happen to anybody; who has ever driven and not come close to maiming somebody? Driving is the most utterly lethal, ordinary thing we do. I'm a dangerously impatient driver myself sometimes, which is part of the reason I don't own a car and drive as little as possible. It seemed to me this was a story Schwartz might actually want to tell. To what sources in Judaism's centuries-old heritage of law and ethics was he turning for guidance? How was Judaism teaching him to respond, to atone? Accidental murder is discussed in many Jewish texts, starting with the Torah itself. Moses is twice instructed about the need to establish "cities of refuge" outside the Promised Land, where people who've inadvertently killed someone must be exiled. It's unclear whether the exile is for the purpose of rehabilitation or solely to save people from murderous revenge by their victim's family. Rabbi Schwartz didn't reply to my e-mail. But when I learned of his driving history, the intricacies of Jewish law no longer seemed important anyway. The story was not, in fact, about some freak incident that could have happened to anybody. It was about an individual with a dangerous problem he was apparently declining to confront. Prior to the new city law, drivers who killed or seriously injured a pedestrian could be criminally charged only if they'd been drunk at the time of the collision, or engaged in some really egregious behavior, like racing. Now, any infraction is enough to charge a driver with assault—so long as that infraction caused the crash. At trial, prosecutors argued Schwartz was guilty of four infractions—including simple "inattention"—but it's not known which of those the jury ultimately attributed to him. Prosecutors say Nakata was hit by the left front bumper of Schwartz's vehicle—which is to say, he was already well into the intersection. It's uncertain whether he was inside the crosswalk. The rabbi testified that he never saw him. With a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, the new misdemeanor is either an unjust criminalization of accidents or a woefully inadequate response to a killing, depending on whom you ask. But one thing is for certain: No change to Schwartz's behavior is required by law. In a city where a few years ago the government began impounding the cars of poor people who hadn't paid their traffic tickets, a person convicted of assault by means of their motor vehicle is free to hop in and drive home. But Schwartz is not an ordinary person. I was amazed that someone in his position would not stand up publicly and say: "I do not admit to being guilty of any crime. But given all that has happened, I will no longer drive." I'm more amazed his community doesn't seem to expect that of him. Of course, our leaders always fall short of the ideals we would impose on them. But being a bad driver isn't like being an alcoholic or pedophile; there's no powerful inborn compulsion to overcome. You just have to not drive. My own father stopped after his declining (but still legal!) eyesight contributed to an accident. In a place like Seattle, to give up driving requires a willingness to deal with some serious inconveniences—but then so does keeping kosher. mfefer@seattleweekly.com

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