Five Washington area rabbis decided yesterday to dramatize the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union by serving 15-day jail sentences rather than accept six months' probation and were ordered to report this morning to the federal prison in Petersburg, Va.
The five, who were among 24 rabbis and a Lutheran pastor arrested May 1 during a demonstration near the Soviet Embassy, attempted to postpone serving the sentences -- which will continue through the remainder of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah -- but D.C. Superior Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly rejected their pleas.
"The choice to go to jail is the choice they have made, not the court," she said.
Rabbi David Oler of Gaithersburg, who must report to Petersburg, said the five were accepting the sentences as "an act of solidarity with Soviet Jews," but called the sentences "extreme, considering our crime was reading the Torah in front of the Soviet Embassy."
The rabbis, who argued during their trial Wednesday that they were compelled by their religious convictions to demonstrate, had sought to argue that they were being unfairly singled out for prosecution because more than 3,000 persons arrested for congregating outside the South African Embassy during antiapartheid demonstrations have not been prosecuted.
Defense attorney Henry W. Asbill said he attempted to raise the issue but was "denied the right to investigate that" by the judge.
A spokesman for the district attorney's office, Clendon Lee, said he could not comment on the question of selective prosecution because "our policy is that we can't discuss cases that are under litigation."
In another case involving a demonstrator outside the Soviet Embassy, D.C. Superior Court Judge Warren P. King ruled in July that the U.S. attorney's office may use broad discretion in deciding whom to prosecute and that the safety of American diplomatic personnel in other nations can be a factor in such decisions.
The Lutheran minister and 16 rabbis, who along with the five were convicted of the misdemeanor charge of congregating within 500 feet of an embassy, accepted fines of $50, suspended sentences of 15 days and six months of unsupervised probation. One rabbi pleaded guilty and was assessed only $10 in court costs.
A bench warrant has been issued for two rabbis who did not appear in court this week because they were out of the city.
Yesterday, as each stood before Kollar-Kotelly for sentencing, several rabbis spoke about their concern for Soviet Jews and their dissatisfaction with the trial's outcome.
Said Oler, "I feel we have not been treated fairly in terms of the spirit of the law . . . I feel there are moral imperatives involved here."
" Writer Elie Wiesel has said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference," began Rabbi Mark Levine of Silver Spring. In recent years, he said, there has been a growing indifference to the plight of Soviet Jews.
"It is unfortunate that this court did not see fit to hear our argument" that the rabbis were conscience-bound to call attention to the hardships inflicted on Soviet Jews, he said.
"Let me correct you on that," the judge interrupted amiably. "We spent two hours on that yesterday."
"We are talking about serious matters in a very rational way while people are being arrested and tortured," Levine countered.
"The courtroom is not the forum for speaking out on some of the issues you have raised," the judge replied.
The only point on which the judge gave ground was in granting Asbill's request for the rabbis -- Oler, Levine, Leonard Cahan of Potomac, Bruce Kahn of Chevy Chase and H. Steven Bayar of Greenbelt -- to check themselves into the Petersburg prison this morning "so they will not have to be in the D.C. Jail overnight."
They are being sent to Petersburg because of the overcrowding in the D.C. Jail.
The Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Church, said he accepted the suspended sentence yesterday because of responsibilities during the Christmas season.
"I'll be back on Jan. 30, your honor," he told the judge. In addition to the May 1 arrest, Steinbruck was arrested in another protest in October.
During court recesses, the rabbis and their supporters clustered in the hallway, talking somberly. Some busied themselves at pay telephones, trying to arrange for colleagues to take over congregational duties during their imprisonment.
Bayar, of Greenbelt, took turns with his wife Ilene holding their 3-month-old daughter, Meira. Nuzzling the sleeping infant, he said softly, "In 15 days she won't know me."