Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Mitzvah of Ransoming a Captive


I am making an appeal.

I have a friend who needs help.

Her name is Wendy Runge; Zeva Rochel bas Chaya 

Wendy; her husband Pinchus; her children; her parents; her siblings and their spouses; and Pinchus' father, are all personal friends of mine who have all, in one way or another, enriched my life; my Yiddishkeit, and the lives of my family and friends.

Wendy has been unjustly accused and is being unjustly sentenced for crimes she did not commit.

Below is a letter written in her defense by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger, the Rav of Knesseth Israel synagogue here in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Rabbi Goldberger mentions Shalom Rubashkin in his letter in defense of Wendy.

For those who are not familiar with Shalom Rubashkin, Google his name and find out more.


Interestingly enough, I also consider myself a friend of Shalom and his family.  

When I first moved to Minnesota, he was kind enough to hire me to remodel his house in St Paul, and I spent six months practically living with his warm and loving family as he commuted back and forth to his new job in Postville, Iowa.

Shalom Rubashkin was treated unjustly and unfairly by the Iowa legal system.

Baruch Hashem that he has a large mishpocha and kehilla that has rallied to his defense and is working tirelessly to overturn this injustice.

Shalom Rubashkin has many strong advocates in the greater Jewish community and in the US political and Justice system.


Mrs. Runge's case has not been as notable as Shalom Rubashkin's.  Her family and friends, who have supported her; are supporting her; and are universally convinced that she is being treated with incredible harshness and injustice by the Iowa justice system, are also not as influential or as large as Shalom's wonderful supporters.


This is a plea, for anyone reading, to read Rabbi Goldberger's letter; to donate to her cause; or to just publicize her cause and this appeal. Wendy needs to radise money to defend herself in the appeal process which, in this country, is incredibly costly.

The Runge family is already in debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars just for the initial trial and appeal.  Without the additional funds for her appeal, the judge is going to sentence her to 10 years in prison.


In the Talmud, Bava Basra 8b, the gemorah explains that pidyon shvuyim; ransoming Jewish captives, is considered a Great Mitzvah; a mitzvah rabbah and that captivity is worse than death and starvation.

The Rambam; Maimonides, rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing commandments such as: "you shall not harden your heart" (Devarim 15:7); "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Vayikra 19:16); and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Vayikra 19:18).


This injustice needs to be publicized.

Wendy needs to be supported.

Please help.

Thank you.


A letter from Rabbi Goldberger:

Let me state from the outset – I am opposed to gratuitous charges of racism or anti-Semitism. Such claims have become tools too easily used to batter an ideological or political opponent into undue submission. 

But bias can and does exist. Even in our cultured and progressive world, instances have been known to occur in which conclusions have been reached as a result of pre-conceived perceptions about a member of a racial or religious group, conclusions in many cases grossly unsupported by the facts. 

The only way to discern true prejudice from intemperate hysteria is to examine the facts of a given case. 

I refer to the case of State of Iowa vs. Mrs. Wendy Weiner Runge, which has recently taken an unexpected and malevolent turn.




When we last reported on this story, Wendy's trial had ended with a plea deal, releasing Wendy from all but one charge, to which she admitted guilt. That was the charge by which she substituted one named future film project for another on an application for State financial credit, an action she took only after having been assured by the authorized State official that it was permissible. As it turned out, the official's assurance was in error. The substitution was, in fact, against the law, and Wendy accepted responsibility for this mistake in the court of Judge Douglas Staskal. 

In the plea arrangement, not only did Wendy agree to plead to the one count, she also agreed to cooperate in the prosecution's ongoing investigation of any other of the filmmakers against whom the State had filed complaints. 

In exchange, the Attorney General agreed to drop all other charges against Wendy, including all charges of financial misconduct – all of which she had denied vigorously from the outset and none of which the State could prove – and to refrain from having the judge pass sentence on her guilty plea until after all other court proceedings in this matter were complete (assumed to be at least a year or more down the road). Compared to the ominous threat of immediate and lengthy prison time as well as an enormous financial fine that had faced the mother of four throughout her trial, this eleventh-hour deal was embraced by Wendy and her legal team with great relief and even celebration.  This plea agreement stipulated a POSSIBLE prison time of not more than ten (10) years and/or a financial settlement not to exceed $10,000. 

It was more than jarring when Wendy received a notice from the judge less than two months later summonsing her to an immediate sentencing hearing on her charge. She had cooperated fully when the DA sent an investigator to interview her about the other defendants. What had gone wrong? 

Evidently, what the State wanted from Wendy was more than cooperation. They demanded Wendy present incriminating evidence they could use to prove guilt against the other defendants. Wendy had consistently asserted that such a thing did not exist, as no financial conspiracy had ever taken place. And so, despite opening all her records to the prosecutors, and despite telling the truth as she knew it, the Attorney General decided Wendy was not being cooperative. 

And he reneged on the deal. 

And so, as swift as it was disheartening, the Attorney General sent a note to Judge Staskal saying he was no longer interested in using Wendy as a witness in any upcoming trials and thus there was no longer a reason to delay her sentencing. 

Two associates of Wendy on the film The Scientist had earlier pleaded guilty to felony theft (Remember – no wrongdoing on anyone's part was ever proven in court. The associates decided to take the guilty plea to avoid the enormous expense of mounting a legal defense.) 

The two were sentenced on that same day by Judge Staskal to probation. With regard to Wendy's sentence, the pre-sentence assessor, taking into account the relatively minor nature of the charge, her being a first time offender, and her being a solid community citizen responsible for the care of four children and an elderly father-in-law, recommended Wendy be given a suspended (no actual jail time) sentence. 

Shockingly, Judge Staskal ignored the recommendation and sentenced her to an unprecedented ten years in prison – the maximum sentence allowed and agreed to as a part of the original plea deal. 




How did Judge Staskal justify the disparity in his penalties? He claimed Wendy showed no remorse over her crime. Had she spoken out defiantly at the hearing, such a conclusion might have been warranted. But in fact what she did at the hearing was read a statement expressing appropriate regret commensurate with her crime – apologizing to the State for having assumed the assurance of the State official was sufficient to rely upon when in fact it was not. She did not apologize for theft, because no money had changed hands; she did not apologize for financial misconduct, because there was none. But to Iowa's justice system, which had desperately wanted to nail her on these charges, this was defiance. 

The judge went further. Where was the evidence of Wendy's lack of remorse? In entries on her personal blog expressing joy over the dropping of the original charges, and in an earlier newspaper article in which Wendy was quoted as wondering what might have caused the assistant attorney general to bring up Sholom Rubashkin's recent conviction at a deposition. In the judge's words, Wendy Runge failed to demonstrate sufficient remorse, as evidenced by entries on her blog alleging vague conspiracies and an article alleging anti-Semitism. 

The judge issues a harsher sentence to a lesser crime on the grounds that he believes he is being falsely accused of anti-Semitism?   This allegation is a result of the initial request for information about Rabbi Rubashkin.  Then in May 2010, the Court knowingly scheduled the pre-trial hearing on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (5 months later) even after Jewish holidays were carefully outlined and the religious significance was detailed to the court.   The response was, "Rosh Hashana is NOT a recognized holiday in Iowa."  After numerous (expensive) motions, hearings and a letter from the highest religious authority, ONLY the day before Rosh Hashana the court relented just in time for Wendy to return home from the hearing for candle lighting, a traditional Jewish ceremony that officially enters the family into the holiday. 




The facts of Wendy's case do not match with the aura assigned it by this judge. 

The plain facts an impartial judge is to consider in passing sentence include: 

  1. only the charge for which the defendant was found guilty, not charges that were dismissed 
  2. mitigating factors (which Wendy has in abundance) 
  3. the seriousness and/or violent nature of the charge (little to none here) 
  4. the recommendation of the pre-sentence assessor 
  5. parallels to others similarly charged


The judge's decision fails on all five.


Prejudice, in its purest state, indicates a prior leaning to judge a person based on your perception of his proclivity to commit the offense – irrespective of his actually having done so. From the beginning, Wendy was treated as one who was likely to have committed all the crimes for which she was charged. Despite her dogged insistence on having been misled by State officials acknowledged to have misrepresented the State's tax credit program, despite the State having been unable to prove a single charge against Wendy or any of her associates, despite the utter inadmissibility of personal, out-of-court communications into any aspect of a judicial hearing without due process, and despite the legitimacy of Wendy expressing a natural sense of joy and vindication on her personal blog, Judge Staskal continued to relate to her as a criminal mastermind who had somehow managed to slip through the system. 

According to the Victim Impact Statements and Pre-Sentencing Probation Reports section of the Women's Justice Center Handbook: 

In most all cases, judges abide by the sentencing recommendation that is formulated by the pre-sentencing probation officer. 

In his attempt to justify straying wildly from this recommendation, Judge Staskal has crossed serious boundary lines touching on questions of judicial bias, presumption of innocence, and First Amendment free speech rights. 

I would like to remind the reader than Wendy was NEVER allowed to make a formal statement about the circumstances that lead her, her attorneys and others to believe that the Film Commissioner was the appropriate authority.




Let us take a look at another recent sentencing, that of Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Unlike Wendy Runge, Tom DeLay was verbally defiant at his sentencing: 

"Everything I did was covered by accountants and lawyers telling me what I had to do to stay within the law. I can't be remorseful for something I don't think I did." 

DeLay called the case "politically motivated" and spoke about how it had affected his wife's health, forced him to raise and spend $10 million in legal fees, and cost him everything he had worked for – including the second-highest post in the U.S. House. 

As with Wendy, the prosecutors in the DeLay case wanted a ten-year sentence and said he should not receive probation because he had shown no remorse. 

Tom DeLay was convicted of a crime scheme designed to launder money and illegally influence Texas elections. He is a major public figure. He was openly defiant at his sentencing. He does not have a large family to care for at home. 

How long a sentence did Mr. DeLay receive? 

Three years. 

Compare that with the treatment given Wendy. Wendy pleaded her own guilt. She was misled by a State official. She received no State money as a result of her crime. She spoke with no defiance in court, restricting her frustrations to personal communications that are supposed to be outside the reach of the court. 

What did she get? Ten years.




We must reach out in support of Wendy and her family. Her attorney believes she has a powerful case for reversal on appeal, but the appellate process is costly, with a large retainer due immediately to her attorneys. Rabbi Michel Twerski remains on record that this mitzvah qualifies as Pidyon Shevuyim – the highest rank among Tzedakah obligations. We look forward to sharing news of Wendy's redemption – and indeed that of all K'lal Yisrael – with you in the very near future. 


Please help Wendy not have to go to prison by making a much needed contribution. Send your checks, payable to The Rabbi's Discretionary Fund at Kenesseth Israel Synagogue

4330 W. 28th Street Minneapolis, MN  55416.

And put Wendy Runge's name in the memo line


May Zeva Rochel bas Chaya have an immediate yeshua


With blessings and appreciation,


Rabbi Chaim Goldberger


Funds are desperately needed ( $50,000) to pay her attorneys to file the appeal. Please help her by sending a check payable to the Rabbi's Discretionary Fund at
Kenesseth Israel Synagogue
4330 W. 28th St.
S. Louis Pk., MN 55416
and put Wendy Runge's name in the memo line, 
or online at ( once you have enter the amount and click donate, you are taken to the page where you enter your credit card info. Click on " add a designation" and type in Rabbi's Discretionary Fund for Wendy Runge

Please forward to anyone you might know who can help, and may Zeva Rochel bas Chaya have an immediate yeshua.


Thank you for caring.