Rabbi Sentenced for Participating in Rally in Front of Soviet Embassy

A two-day sentence was imposed Wednesday morning in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Rabbi Avraham Weiss of Riverdale, The Bronx, for his participation in a demonstration of prayer and song in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington last March on behalf of Soviet Jews. The demonstrators violated a Washington, D.C. statute that prohibits demonstrations within 500 feet of an Embassy.

The sentencing was pronounced by Judge Robert Shuker, who refused Weiss’s request to surrender himself, and ordered that he be escorted from court to the D.C. jail by a corrections officer.

On Monday, following the setting of the sentence, Shuker refused a request by Weiss’s attorney, Barry Boss, that Weiss be permitted to serve his time in another facility.

Weiss was part of a group of 21 rabbis arrested for taking part in the protest, which was part of a series of demonstrations at the Embassy since May 1985. Of the entire group Weiss was the only one to have pleaded not guilty. The others entered a guilty plea, subject to the court of appeals reviewing certain questions which were denied before, including the constitutionality of the statute under which they were prosecuted, under the First Amendment. A case is expected to be decided by the Supreme Court later this year based on the right to free speech and to assemble, questioning the constitutionality of the 500-feet stipulation.

Several rabbis have already served time in jail for their participation in such demonstrations. In December 1985, five rabbis served 12 days of a 15-day sentence for demonstrating in front of the Soviet Embassy. Over 100 rabbis, ministers, cantors, Hebrew teachers and students have taken part in the Soviet Jewry protests there.

Weiss, who is senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and national chairman of the Center for Russian Jewry/Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), suffered a heart attack last September after being beaten by angry concert-goers emerging from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York following a tear-gas bombing at a performance of the Moiseyev Dance Company, a Russian folkloric group.

Although responsibility for the bomb was claimed by the Jewish Defense League, Weiss was a conspicuous target for the ire of exiting audience members as he stood in front of the opera house wearing a yarmulke and passing out leaflets, trying to dissuade people from attending the concert. Two other members of the SSSJ were with him at the time. Weiss, 42, was hospitalized for two months at that time. Then, in December, six days after the rabbis’ trial was held, and at which time Weiss pleaded not guilty, he was readmitted to the hospital with a serious coronary condition that required an immediate quadruple bypass operation of a particularly serious nature.

Although the prosecution agreed with Weiss’s defense that a continuance of sentence should be accorded Weiss because of his health, hearing Commissioner Thomas Gaye disagreed, said Boss. Weiss would also not accept unsupervised probation, because he felt that he had done nothing wrong.

Weiss’s cardiologist, Dr. Mark Greenberg, wrote a letter to the judge explaining that because of Weiss’s recent bypass operation, a jail term was problematic and could subject him to extra stress. Greenberg also asked that Weiss’s medications not be interfered with and be administered as prescribed.

Boss said that Avi went to jail because the court was unwilling to consider any additional leniency. He said the other rabbis received a two-day suspended sentence, but Weiss rejected a suspended sentence and $100 fine. Weiss is expected to be released Thursday morning, because any time spent on the second day is credited as a full day served.

Boss said that an appeal will be filed challenging the statute’s constitutionality and selective prosecution, based on the fact that demonstrators in front of the South African Embassy were not charged with violation of the statute.

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