This summer, I met a man who I would never have met in my everyday life. I might have seen him riding his bike along Walnut Lake Road, and I might have struck up a conversation with him in line at Kroger, but I would never have known who he was. I would never have known that he had been convicted of 1st degree murder when he was a junior in high school and sentenced to life without parole. I would never have known that he spent 40 years in prison, or that he was just released in 2020 under a bi-partisan law that banned mandatory life-sentences-without-parole for juvenile offenders, under which he was sentenced.
His name is Ronnie Waters. We met through the Temple Israel Anti-Racism Task Force, and we spent an hour together, and then another, and I could have talked to him all day long. We talked about change. We talked about forgiveness. We talked about second chances, and all I could think about was Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement.
You don’t have to have committed a major crime for these themes to be relevant. Judaism recognizes that it is human nature to transgress, to slip up, to make mistakes, but always contingent upon atonement. These hours of conversation reminded me that atonement doesn’t discriminate when it comes to degree of sin.
In Hebrew, we call it teshuva, but the word actually means “return,” as in returning to God, returning to our essential selves, returning to who we are supposed to be. No matter the severity of our sins, it is incumbent upon us to engage in this process.
It is, I believe, what Ronnie has done. He is a changed man — now almost 60 years old, he was a teenager when he shot and killed Deborah Ann Porcelli at the drive-in movie theater at Square Lake and Telegraph, right behind where Costco is now.
Ronnie told me he had never shot a gun before that night. He believed the .22 was equivalent to a BB gun. He didn’t think it could even break a windshield, but he played tough around the guys he was with.
And from the moment the bullet shattered the window and struck Deborah Ann — a 28-year-old innocent woman, a wife and mother — he was sorry. Distraught, he apologized over and over to her lifeless body. He didn’t intend to kill her. It was five guys trying to make some excitement in the streets of Pontiac — and it all went bad. Very, very bad.
And now, 40 years have passed. A significant number in our Jewish story — from the 40 days and 40 nights of Noah’s flood to the 40 years of wandering in the desert. In Jewish tradition, 40 means a very long time — and just ask Ronnie, it really is.
Looking back, he told me:
I didn’t want to be remembered for the worst thing I ever did.
He wanted people to see that he had redeeming qualities despite his actions as a teen, so he started doing things to make himself a better person. In prison, he went to school. He took advantage of every opportunity the Department of Corrections offered. He tried to help people worse off than he was.
It turns out he’s very modest, and his wife Felecia, his childhood sweetheart, filled me in on the details. He would regularly put extra money in the accounts of fellow prisoners who didn’t have enough of their own. He helped others with their education. One inmate hadn’t seen his mother in over five years because she didn’t have transportation to the prison, so Ronnie asked Felecia to provide a ride, which she started doing regularly for prisoner families. She was coming anyway.
He wanted to do better. He wanted to be better.
To that end, he has turned his life around. He has admitted his wrong. He has taken full responsibility for his crime. He’s now dedicating his life to supporting juvenile offenders, to help break the cycle of violence. And if put in the same or similar situation again, with the same circumstances, he would not repeat the crime — which is the essence of teshuva.
But I must admit, it’s hard to talk about repentance, in a murder case. Can there ever be enough atonement for either the perpetrator or the victim?
I have never understood when someone has just lost their loved one to a heinous crime, they stand up in the courtroom and say that they have forgiven the perpetrator. Really? Do they really forgive them?
In this machzor, on page 324, we read, as we did this morning, “I hereby forgive all those who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”
Every single year my father asks me what this passage means. Do you forgive Hitler for killing 6 million? Do you forgive Spain for the Inquisition? This year he’ll probably ask: Do you forgive Putin for invading Ukraine? And I’ll answer, exasperated, as I do every year, No Dad, of course not!
And while we hold onto the atrocities committed against our people, page 324 isn’t about genocide against the Jews, it’s about the everyday hurts and offenses from the people who slighted us, who harmed us. People who said nasty things, who were thoughtless and careless. People who took advantage. To them, we grant forgiveness, and in turn, we ask forgiveness from those who we have wronged, because as we start a new year, it is time to let go.
But is the Porcelli family supposed to forgive Ronnie Waters? I know you’re wondering if they have, and I am too. What would that forgiveness even look like? What would it even mean?
Truth is, in Jewish tradition, it is not mandatory to forgive. The perpetrator must ask forgiveness 3 times but if you choose not to forgive, that is your prerogative.
Forgiveness can’t bring Deborah Ann back. Forgiveness won’t allow them to go with their lives as if their family hasn’t been completely destroyed. But forgiveness has its own kind of power. It can help lessen the hold the perpetrator has on you.
It can help you let go of the anger and resentment. When you forgive, it doesn’t mean you forget, but it can bring you a feeling of resolution that allows you to move on with your life. And when you think about it this way, forgiveness becomes about how it affects those who have been wounded, not about letting the perpetrator off the hook for their crime.
I can’t tell you whether or not the Porcelli’s should forgive Ronnie Waters, that’s a whole level of forgiveness most of us can’t possibly begin to understand, but I can suggest that you consider who needs to be forgiven in your own life, who needs a second chance:
Perhaps it is time to forgive your friend who never repaid your loan.
Perhaps it is time to forgive your brother, your sister, for not being there when you needed them to help care for aging parents.
And no matter how old or young we are, perhaps it is time to forgive our parents for doing it wrong, even when they are trying to do it right regarding all the newfangled ideas and tech in our modern world.
And perhaps this Yom Kippur, we ought to consider who not only deserves a second chance in our lives, but who we are hoping will give us one. And if they do, how will we make teshuva? How will we truly repent for the mistakes we have made?
In her new book, Repentance and Repair, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains,
Forgiveness is up to the victim—and the victim alone.
Atonement is up to God.
And repentance is where the hard work lies “through a public apology, making amends, and deep transformational effort that culminates in changed actions.”
These rubrics are the standard for making teshuva, but the process is different for each one of us. Maimonides—the go-to Jewish philosopher when it comes to teshuva — teaches that it’s only when we do the work needed to make that transformation, that we can make a different choice in the future.
So, each of us must define for ourselves what needs to happen to make this change. To do it successfully might include therapy, meditation, or prayer. It might mean spending time with those we’ve hurt through a process of restorative justice. It might mean educating ourselves in topics that we didn’t fully understand before. But in the end, it is about owning up to the hurt we’ve caused, repairing our relationships, and transforming ourselves from the people that we were, to the people that we can be.
This is a very hard thing to do. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it might even take 40 years.
But, before you say, “Never, no way, I could never do that,” let me share with you this story that I found in Rabbi Ruttenberg’s book. I was stunned that it was about my friend, Alix Wall who I’ve known for 30 years. She’s not just any friend, she’s the one who witnessed my ketubah, so her story became very personal to me.
Back in college, Alix was tricked into carrying drugs on a flight to Israel under the guise of delivering a birthday gift for a friend of a friend. After five hours of interrogation, police finally believed she had been set up and let her go. Imagine the consequences had they not. This incident bothered her her whole life. She never forgot, and she never forgave the man who set her up. Years later, she worked up the nerve to look him up on Facebook.
It turned out he was relieved to hear from her. You see, in the intervening years he had gone through recovery, yet he had never come to terms with what he had done to her. Now, he finally had the chance to apologize, to make amends and show he had changed.
He told her that he “hadn’t touched drugs since, because [they] turned him into a kind of person he didn’t want to be.” And what happened between them had played a large part in it. He never wanted to cause harm like that again. And for Alix, their exchange gave her just what she needed finally to forgive.
Here lies the true power of teshuva: our personal transformation and the transformation of the life of the person we’ve hurt. It is never too late to engage in repentance. In fact, our tradition teaches,
Repent the day before your death.
But we don’t the day of our death,
So, repent today!
Today, Yom Kippur, makes it easy because the gates of repentance are open, and I like to think of them as open arms welcoming us into a space of forgiveness, acceptance, and change. And I’ll tell you a little secret, the gates of repentance are always open.
If you’d like to see what repentance looks like in person, I invite you to come back to temple this afternoon at 3:30 for Mincha Moments to hear from Ronnie Waters about his journey. He’ll share with you more of his story. He’ll tell you about his life, his incarceration, his eventual release, and how he has found redemption.
It’s a story of teshuva. It’s a story of second chances. It’s the story of man who you might see riding his bicycle down Walnut Lake Road or at Kroger, and now you’ll know who he is, how he has transformed his life, how he has dedicated himself to his community, and how he is committed to making a difference for others.
Ronnie is doing the hard work every single day.
And today is the day that God asks us to do the same: to walk through the gates, seeking forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, committing to the process of repentance, and standing before God in search of atonement, as we pray that we are sealed for another year—imperfect as we are—in the book of forgiveness, life, and peace.
Gates of Repentance, p. 324
Ruttenberg, Repentance and Repair p. 33
Ruttenberg, Repentance and Repair, p. 174, and https://www.salon.com/2013/05/01/he_made_me_his_drug_mule/
Pirke Avot 2:10