MICHAEL C. DUKE – Jewish Herald Voice
The first-known Jew to be executed in Texas received a halahkic burial, due to the combined efforts of a Houston rabbi and a “spiritual adviser” with whom the death row inmate corresponded.
Douglas Feldman, 55, received lethal injection at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville on July 31 for a pair of double murders he committed some 15 years ago.
Amid a fit of road-rage in late summer 1998, Feldman shot and killed truck drivers Robert Everett, 36, and Nicholas Valesquez, 62, in two separate incidents in Dallas County. Feldman was arrested more than a week later after shooting another man, non-fatally, at a fast-food restaurant. The shootings orphaned children and left family members reeling.
The admitted and unremorseful killer – a former financial analyst who had a long criminal history and suffered from mental illness, according to those who knew him – was set on having his body cremated upon execution, but then agreed to have a proper Jewish burial after meeting with Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, consulting rabbi for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“He has the right to die as a Jew,” Rabbi Goldstein told the JHV, following the burial in Dallas on Aug. 1. “The Jewish people are responsible for one another, even in the worst of circumstances.
“We should be able to make a connection with a person via their soul,” he said.
A week prior to the execution, the rabbi and a colleague visited Feldman in prison, where he was given a rare spiritual moment, laid tefillin for the first time and became a Bar Mitzvah.
Feldman spent the past decade-and-a-half on death row in the country’s busiest capital-punishment state. Even in prison, Feldman showed a propensity toward violence.
When the Richardson, Texas-native entered the criminal justice system, he declined to indicate that he was Jewish and, thus, was unknown to the state’s rabbi chaplain for most of his incarceration.
Rabbi Goldstein learned of Feldman through Brian Hutchison, a Houston-area law student who was assigned the case via a nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty. Through Hutchison, the rabbi made contact with Feldman’s mother, who lives in the Dallas area.
“We spoke on the phone and she was quite upset, saying: ‘Who am I – almost 15 years of her son being in jail, only now to reach out?!’ ” Rabbi Goldstein recalled.
The rabbi explained the lack of contact, then offered his services to the mother and to Feldman, who would be executed in less than a month’s time. She asked Rabbi Goldstein to visit her son in jail, noting that nobody in the Jewish community had reached out to him – apart from a man in New York.
James Irsay was one of dozens of people to whom Feldman wrote letters toward the end of his life.
Feldman found Irsay after the latter’s name and writing appeared in a catalog of Jewish mystical art that was being exhibited in a New York gallery. The death row inmate wrote to the gallery, which put him in touch with the author this past February.
“I wrote him back because he had been through a lot,” said Irsay, who studies what he calls “practical Kabbalah” and hosts a classical music program on a New York public radio station. “He appealed to me as a Jew. I couldn’t turn him down. I felt a responsibility to respond.”
Irsay became Feldman’s “Jewish interface,” he told the JHV. Feldman requested that Irsay be present at the execution as his “spiritual advisor.” The state ultimately disqualified him as such on a technicality, but Irsay still flew to Texas for the execution, where he joined a small candlelight protest of death-penalty opponents outside the prison wall.
“I came down not because [Doug and I] were close, but because he was in a desert, and I was a drop of water,” Irsay said.
The New Yorker said he also decided to make the journey after speaking with Feldman’s mother, who refused to witness her son’s execution.
“I had to go because she said she couldn’t bear it,” Irsay said.
Feldman was heavily armed when police finally tracked him down after the shootings.
In his letters from prison, he wrote gleefully of killing.
Feldman believed he constantly was under attack. “Spiritual distress, he had in spades,” Irsay observed.
Kabbalistic imagery that depicts dark forces that work to deprive people of light and love resonated with Feldman. One of the prisoner’s few and prized possessions was a Kabbalistic amulet that Irsay painted and sent to him. In it, the artist “harnessed the force of light – a warrior force – which attacks and defends against the dark force.” Feldman particularly was drawn to one of the names of G-d – spelled shin-daled-yud – that appears on the amulet; the same name is written on the mezuzah that Jews affix to the doorposts of their homes.
Feldman was informed the morning of July 24 that he would be receiving a “contact visit” by a rabbi later that day.
Rabbi Goldstein, and his Chabad Outreach colleague and fellow prison chaplain, Rabbi Mendy Traxler, drove 100 miles north from Houston to the Polunsky unit in Lake Livingston, Texas.
The rabbis’ plan was to engage with Feldman on the spiritual level and to give him an opportunity to perform mitzvot.
Their efforts were met with hostility.
“Doug walked into the room, we started talking, and he established from the get-go that he’s not religious – he was born Jewish, but religion doesn’t mean anything to him,” Rabbi Goldstein recalled. “He then proceeded to say very derogatory things about everything.”
For half-an-hour, Feldman told his story, including what he did that landed himself on death row and how he was right in what he did. He told Rabbi Goldstein: “If you piss me off, I would kill you, too.”
The rabbis attempted to maneuver around Feldman’s anger. They encouraged him to say Viduy, a Jewish confessional prayer. This, he rejected. He also scoffed at the idea of having a Jewish burial, rather than his intended cremation, which is prohibited by Jewish law.
The visit wasn’t going well and Rabbi Goldstein soon began to question what he was doing there. Instead of giving up and leaving, however, he decided to redouble his efforts and give Feldman the opportunity to connect with his spirituality, one last time.
The death row inmate rebuffed several offers to perform the mitzvah of laying tefillin – that is, until Rabbi Goldstein learned of Feldman’s interest in Kabbalah.
They began to discuss spirituality through the lens of Jewish mysticism and Hasidic philosophy. The subject of the Holocaust then came up and Feldman described a World War II-era photograph that he’d seen and which left an impression. The image was of a Jew, wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, surrounded by Germans who were ridiculing him.
Rabbi Goldstein referenced the tefillin in the photo, then pulled out his own set for Feldman to see. He pointed to the Hebrew letter, shin – the “warrior letter” from Feldman’s amulet – that’s embossed on the leather box that’s bound around the head during prayer.
The rabbi asked Feldman if he wanted to be a warrior. Feldman did, so the rabbi said, “Let’s have a Bar Mitzvah.”
“I put the tefillin on him, made the blessings, and then he became emotional,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “He started to cry.”
It was the first and only time that the 55-year-old Feldman would lay tefillin. After davening, Rabbi Traxler presented Feldman with a book to say Viduy on the day of his execution.
They had come to the end of their three-hour visit. As the chaplains waited for the guards, Rabbi Goldstein jogged Feldman’s childhood memories by singing Jewish songs.
Before leaving, Rabbi Goldstein asked if he could hug Feldman. The convicted killer agreed.
“I bent over and gave him a really strong hug,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Traxler did the same. The guards then took Feldman away.
Rabbi Goldstein called Feldman’s mother shortly after the visit.
She heard about the hug and said that was the first time in 15 years that a human being put a loving embrace on her son.
‘Care and concern’
Six days after the prison visit, Rabbi Goldstein and Irsay met in Houston.
Sharing concern for one’s Jewish soul, the pair agreed to broach the Jewish burial subject with the condemned prisoner one more time.
Irsay called Feldman’s mother the morning of the execution to reconsider burial. She ultimately agreed. The reason why, she said, was because the rabbi had hugged her son.
“I showed true care and concern for him [when he was still alive], so she knew I would show true care and concern for his burial,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
Feldman was executed that evening. Rabbi Goldstein did not attend because he was not on Feldman’s “packet” list.
Instead, the rabbi spent the day reaching out to Jewish agencies and community members in Houston and in Dallas to make the funeral arrangements. He pulled together a broad coalition. The costs were divvied up and Feldman’s body received a proper Jewish burial the next day in Dallas.
It was a challenge to find help with such an effort, the rabbi noted.
“I made some phone calls to try and raise the money for the burial and it was interesting the different responses I received,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “Some people in Houston felt that’s what they wanted to do, so they contributed, and, some people were not that excited to contribute because of the crimes he had committed.”
Before heading back to Houston, Rabbi Goldstein assigned a local rabbi to say Kaddish for a year.
‘Everybody has a neshama’
The encounter was taxing for Rabbi Goldstein, who has served as a prison chaplain since 2005. In that time, he has worked with TDCJ to build a rehabilitation program for the some 60-80 Jewish offenders currently in state penitentiaries. Feldman was the rabbi’s first Jewish death row case.
The experience reinforced his personal anti-death penalty beliefs. The rabbi describes himself as “pro-rehabilitation.”
“I don’t think that [Feldman] should have been freed, but the facts are that he wasn’t well, and that for the 15 years of his life that he spent on death row, he didn’t receive any mental health care,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
The rabbi said he understood Feldman to be a murderer and he was convicted and executed as such. Nevertheless, the rabbi said he also understands that G-d created people in His image.
“Everybody has a neshama, a soul, and therefore has the right to connect with his soul before he dies, to make amends with Hashem and to prepare himself for what’s going to be,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
Following Feldman’s execution, the rabbi chaplain said the experience helped him realign with his mission to help any and all Jews connect with their souls.
Irsay said the experience left him considering both the nature of the human spirit and the death penalty.
A prosecutor in the case described Feldman as a “poster child for the death penalty.” Irsay saw Feldman, who graduated with highest honors from college, as a “poster child for the dark influences that are real and attack in our lives.” Such attacks, he said, suppressed the gifts that Feldman was given.
In their final correspondence, Irsay told Feldman he was a worthwhile person. Feldman broke with his narcissism for a moment and thanked Irsay for the Kabbalah amulet.