It was a speech like no other that Rabbi Rex Perlmeter had given -- delivered inside a Baptist church and pressing the argument that the death penalty is "killing the soul of this country."
When he finished his talk last week at Mount Hope Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore, the rabbi walked over to the parents of Steven Oken -- a death-row inmate who could be executed as early as next week -- and wrapped his arms around them.
"It meant a lot to me," she says. "For so many years, I felt very angry and upset that the rabbis wouldn't put out their hands to help."
Steven Oken is believed to be one of only a few Jewish inmates on any death row in the country. And his parents say they have long looked for support from a Jewish community that remains divided in its views on capital punishment.
When he was put on Maryland's death row in 1991, Oken's mother sought to connect him with the Aleph Institute, which provides religious material to Jewish prisoners across the country.
A member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for the previous 27 years, Davida Oken says she asked the synagogue for records on her son -- who had his bar mitzvah there -- to send to Aleph.
But she says that she was so upset with the response to her request that she withdrew her family's membership.
For years, Davida Oken says, the congregation leaders didn't lend her family emotional support or join her family's fight to save her son's life.
But when Rex Perlmeter arrived in 1996 as the new senior rabbi, the family wrote to him, thinking they would try again for help.
Perlmeter, now 45, says he remembers feeling uncomfortable when he received the Okens' request. He supported use of the death penalty against the most heinous of criminals. And he thought that Steven Oken, convicted of sexually assaulting and killing three women in 1987, fell into that category.
"I was very ambivalent," he says now. "I felt sadness for their family, but I also felt that justice was being served."
He passed the note to another rabbi, but that, he says, marked the beginning of his evolution from favoring capital punishment in some cases to opposing it altogether.
"Over the years, thinking about how I had failed the Okens, sensing their pain, knowing that they could not get the help they asked for from their community, that influenced me," Perlmeter says.
As Perlmeter was examining his views, Davida Oken says she found help in other places. The Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister League of Baltimore sent someone to visit Oken every month and delivered kosher foods so he could observe Passover, says Mark Levine, institutional coordinator for the league.
"We want to make sure that the inmate is not forgotten," he says. "And we do what we can to maintain their connection to the religion."
It's a religion that -- unlike Catholicism, for example, which has taken a strong stance against capital punishment -- includes varied views of state executions.
The Reform Jewish Movement, which includes Baltimore Hebrew and 900 other synagogues, has formally opposed the death penalty since 1959. But the Baltimore Jewish Council, a government and community relations agency for the area's synagogues and rabbinical organizations, does not oppose capital punishment.
"Judaism does not equate state-sponsored execution with murder, and we would not support an outright ban on capital punishment," says David Conn, director of government relations and public policy for the council. He adds that the council would like to see various reforms to make the death penalty more equitably applied.
For rabbi, stance on execution evolves
Pleas from Oken's parents reversed his support for capital punishment
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