Eight Washington area rabbis said yesterday that they may choose to serve 15-day jail sentences, including the remainder of the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, to dramatize their concern for the treatment of Soviet Jews.
The eight are among 24 rabbis and a Lutheran pastor who were convicted yesterday in D.C. Superior Court for congregating within 500 feet of the Soviet Embassy during a demonstration May 1 and given 15-day suspended sentences.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who rejected the argument that their protests on behalf of Soviet Jews were compelled by their religious beliefs, yesterday gave the eight until 9 a.m. today to decide whether they will accept the suspended sentences or go to jail immediately. She also sentenced each protester to six months of unsupervised probation and fined each $50.
Rabbi David Oler of Gaithersburg, one of the eight and chairman of the Washington Board of Rabbi's Committee on Soviet Jewry, said it was "a matter of principle," that some of the rabbis "are not comfortable accepting probation . . . . Some of us feel that Jews in the Soviet Union don't have the choice of accepting probation or paying a fine."
Oler, who said the protesters were acting in response to the Old Testament directive: "Do not stand idly by while your colleague's blood is being spilled," criticized the judge for "taking a very hard line."
"We still regard it as selective prosecution," he said, alluding to the fact that the thousands arrested during antiapartheid demonstrations at the South African Embassy throughout the last year have not been prosecuted.
The men and women convicted yesterday launched a series of demonstrations at the Soviet Embassy that have resulted in 132 arrests, including one group of 22 college students arrested in October. On Dec. 5, Kollar-Kotelly rejected the selective prosecution plea offered by a group of 21 rabbis arrested June 10, also fining them $50, and suspending 15-day jail terms.
One defendant, Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, pleaded guilty yesterday, was fined $10 in court costs and given the same suspended sentence and unsupervised probation.
The Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Church, said last night he was undecided as to whether he will serve the jail term because it would extend through Christmas, when he has major responsibilities with his church.