Today I watched a man die.
The call came in at about 2:00 pm. “Can you be with Mr. Martin Grossman during his execution?” How can you say no? How can you say yes? What can you say? After speaking to my wife, I decided to go. I made a few phone calls and found a companion for the road and off we went. Along the way, another friend offered to join and the three of us departed down the I95 to the I10 to be with Mr. Grossman.
A little background.
A few months ago Rabbi Mendy Katz from Aleph sent out an email to the local Chabad. Rabbis. In it was a very simple request. Due to the financial downturn Aleph could no longer afford to send Yeshiva students to all the prisons in Florida. Would any community be willing to go visit a few prisons in their area? We volunteered. Rather, I volunteered and subsequently invited members of our community to come along.
On our first visit, during Chanukah, our group was divided into pairs of two for maximum efficiency. David Sall, a local psychiatrist and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lieberman, my lifetime friend and a local law student teamed up and I partnered with Dovid Moyer, a local financial repair specialist and businessman. Our group went to a number of prisons that day including Union Correctional. Mendy and David went to death row. As you know by now, death row housed the now world famous Martin Grossman A”H.
Several days after our visit to death row, the Governor signed Martin’s death warrant and set the date of execution for February 16th at 6:00 PM. Saddened by the news, but not really sure what to do, I kept about my daily business and even went back to visit the prison one more time with a group.
Sometime during January, Rabbi Katz called me, “Martin is going to die,” he said. “What we can do to help him?” At first, I have to admit, I was hesitant. What could I do? I’m a local Chabad Rabbi. This is for the national organizations. After reading the proclamation by Rabbi Shochat of Los Angeles that one could even violate Shabbos to save Mr. Grossman, I was convinced.
First, I called Rabbi Mendy Katz back and told him I was on board but only to assist him, not to take charge of this. Then, I called Rabbi Oirechman the Chabad Rabbi in Tallahassee and asked if he was on board. After giving it some thought, he said that he was fully on board. Now was time to get the plan in motion.( Let also add that tremendous work was being done by many organizations at the time. This is just my account and the events that led me to watch Martin Die.) Rabbi Katz put together a letter that most of the 150 Chabad Rabbis in Florida signed. Another letter was written by Rabbi Zvi Biarsky which many Rabbis from every Jewish group signed as well, and they were both later hand delivered to the Governor by Rabbi Oirechman.
In addition, I started an online petition. On the first day we had 23 signatures, day two we had 200 on day three 1,000. At about that time, many in the broader Jewish community got involved in the cause to encourage the Governor to grant a clemency hearing to Mr. Grossman. Leaders from Agudath Israel, the OU, the RCC, many in the Yeshiva world in Monsey and Lakewood, and Satmar Chassidim were getting involved. It was simply amazing! The cause was taking a life of its own. Every day emails were being sent out to thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life encouraging them to sign the petition. At its close, the petition had in excess of 33,000 signatures many people wrote personal and some heart rending notes. The Achdus/togetherness of Klal Yisroel/the Jewish people was heart-warming.
Just to give further insight into this we put together a website called www.savemartingrossman.com. While putting the site together, I realized in amazement, that the man with the idea for the site was a Litvisher/yeshivish Jew, the man who paid for the site was a Satmar Chosid and here I was, a card carrying Lubavitcher shliach working on the site through Chabad.org’s unbelievable server system. Incidentally, nearly 20,000 people logged onto the site during the last week alone.
That’s the background for today’s events. I’m now on the way to the prison with my two friends Dr. David Sall and Rabbi Mendy Lieberman who by divine providence are the same two people who visited Martin during Chanukah. I did not specifically call them. I asked some others first. As they say a Jew plans and G-d laughs. I planned on spending my afternoon and evening with some teenagers at the local high school doing a Jewish teen group and helping my wife who just had a baby give the kids dinner and do bedtime. David was busy with some needed recreation and Mendy was at school. None of us ever expected our day to turn out the way it did.
We got to the prison and were told, as expected, that only I could go in. Mendy and David were to wait with the media across the street. I was escorted in and given the rundown. There was to be only respectful behavior. There would be no contact with Martin. No books or metal were allowed in. I had the opportunity to meet with and thank a few of the chaplains and department heads who had been very helpful in our past prison visits. I also met Martin’s attorney. It was touching to be able to meet the man who put up such a fight for Martin over the years. .
At about 5:30 we were escorted together with all the other people who were to witness the execution H”LS. Amongst the group were about 7 or 8 members of Ms. Parks family. There were a number of state witnesses, and about 6 or 7 members of the press. We were taken through the metal detectors and searched. We then passed through a number of security doors which I was all too familiar with from previous visits. The mood was a mix. People were chatting nervously and were very cordial with each other. I was so thoroughly impressed with the Parks family and the other people present. They handled themselves so courteously despite the obviously intense tension..
We were taken into a van and driven to another section of the prison. We were then escorted into a room at about 5:45. The room was about 30 feet by 15 feet it was lined with 3 rows of chairs each about 10 chairs deep. On the last row, furthest from the front, sat the members of the media. In front of them, the state witnesses, and in the first row was the Parks family and myself. For fifteen minutes you could hear a pin drop in that room. Nobody looked at each other. People sat in silence, just reflecting. I put on my ‘gartel’ [special belt for prayer] and started to daven/pray. First I said a number of prayers by heart and then I started to say Psalms. I became oblivious to my surroundings, just simply lost in thought and prayer. Suddenly, I began thinking, what am I doing here? Why would Hashem want me to be here? What purpose does this serve? After all, there is so much pain and hurt in this room, the Parks family suffered terribly. They are obviously still dealing with much of it. Tens of thousands of Jewish people throughout the world are sitting in prayer, hoping praying that Hashem will have mercy and grant Mr. Grossman reprieve. And much of that burden falls on my shoulders as the one Jew, the one rabbi, the one ‘shliach’ of the Lubavitcher Rebbe sitting in this room.
Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind about all of those people, those individuals that the Rebbe had reached out to through the years – one Jew at a time, mostly through his shluchim. The Rebbe loved EVERY Jew. Here again there is one Jew sitting in a faraway place in middle of nowhere, no family with him, no love from the audience. He would have died alone. The only person that cared about him was the Rebbe, who sent Rabbi Katz to spend 4 hours with him on his dying day and me to be here while he breathes his last breath.
I started to daven that whatever I think, whatever I feel should be what the Rebbe would want me to think and/or feel. What does Hashem want me to do now? I started to sing a niggun to myself based on the words “Kiayil taarog al afikei mayim kein nafshi taarog eilecho elokim.” My soul wants to be with you Hashem …..
Almost immediately the curtain opened and there was Martin in the next room. He was only four or five feet from us, but he was strapped down and covered up until his neck. The only visible part of him was his arm, in which was an IV that would deliver the sam hamoves, the poison, and his face. In the room with him were a police officer and someone who stood with a paper and notebook presumably recording every detail of what transpired. The room also had a large clock behind Martin as well as video cameras and microphones hanging from the ceiling. Otherwise there were freshly painted walls, a sparkling clean floor, and a one way glass leading to a third room behind Martin.
Martin did not look at the crowd nor at the police officer next to him, he just stared up at the ceiling. There was silence in the room, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I for one was almost convulsing. The clock read 6:02.
The officer asked “Mr. Grossman do you have any final words?” to which Martin replied “Yes”.
Martin began “ I completely regret everything that I did on that night, both that which I remember and that which I do not”. He then said, “ I would like to say a prayer,” the officer said okay.
At that point Martin says “Shema Yisroel adon- elokenu adon- echod” in a loud voice and then said something that I will never forget so long as I live.
At that point I began to weep so loud that the guy behind me asked me if I would like to leave. There are no words to describe the way Martin died. Martin committed a terrible crime, one that will haunt a family as long as they live. But with those two words he showed that, “ein dovor bo bifnei harotzon,” nothing stands in the way of a man’s will. Martin died proclaiming his affection for Yisroel his brothers and sisters throughout the world, more for G-d and his Torah as well. Martin died a repentant man, but more than that. Martin died a man that accomplished something that we as Jews have been trying to do for nearly 2,000 years He brought us together with true Jewish unity -Ahavas Yisroel.
Who knew a child born to an abusive father and sick mother, a boy who could not make it through school, a young man who shopped for drugs in his mother’s closet, a man who killed someone- and not just a person, but a beautiful Park Ranger, who was just doing her job, while he was high on a cocktail of drugs, could have such an incredible impact.
Martin died as a true bal Teshuvah Al Kidush Hashem, sanctifying G-ds name in public, the highest level a Jew can reach on this earth.
(Nochum Kurinsky /Reprinted with permission from savemartingrossman.com)