Unabom victim grateful to Marin rabbi, congregants

Dr. Charles Epstein believes only one thing saved his life when he opened a package from the Unabomber on June 22, 1993.

"Pure luck."

The mail bomb, wrapped in a manila package about the size of a videocassette, wasn't defective or weak. Sent to Epstein's Tiburon home, the bomb simply wasn't at the correct angle to kill him.

"The bomb took out a good part of my arm, which has been repaired. And if I'd held it two degrees another way, the same blast that went through my arm would have gone through my heart," he said.

Epstein, a nationally known geneticist and pediatrics professor at U.C. San Francisco, has also been a member of two Bay Area Conservative synagogues — San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom and Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar.

Epstein spoke publicly for the first time about the incident on Friday of last week — a day after Theodore Kaczynski pleaded guilty in Sacramento to nearly two decades of attacks. Kaczynski admitted to sending 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 23, including Epstein.

At the press conference, the 64-year-old Epstein called Kaczynski the "personification of evil…manipulative to the extreme and…a coward." He thanked Kazcynski's brother and mother for having the courage to turn him in. And he reminded the world of the suffering of the victims and their families.

In an interview on Monday, Epstein also spoke of his religious involvement. He and his wife, Dr. Lois Epstein, joined Beth Sholom after they moved to San Francisco in 1967. The family joined Kol Shofar more than a decade ago, after moving to Tiburon.

Among the factors that aided his recovery, Epstein said, was the support from Kol Shofar. Epstein recalls the prayers of healing that he knew Rabbi Lavey Derby was reciting for him.

"I knew I had tremendous support of the Kol Shofar community and that was important to me," he said.

The trauma, which kept him in the hospital for five weeks, did not make him a more religious Jew, but it transformed his outlook on life in a positive way.

"Nothing reinforces the unpredictability of life like having a bomb going off in your hand and knowing well you could have died," he said.

"Life is really transitory and you need to live it fully in the present."

Epstein lost portions of three fingers on his right hand. He still suffers from loss of dexterity in his right arm and from hearing loss.

Though he wasn't the first victim, Epstein had never heard of the Unabomber before he was maimed.

Immediately after the bombing, Epstein said he was concerned it might be an anti-Semitic incident. Yale University Professor David Gelernter, who was injured during the same week as Epstein, is also Jewish.

But that theory turned out to be false. Epstein said the Unabomber has no known history of anti-Jewish sentiment.

In the aftermath of Kaczynski's guilty plea last week, Epstein said he is satisfied that the Unabomber will receive life in prison instead of the death penalty.

"I'm uncomfortable with the concept of executing people," he said. But "sometimes you say that some people deserve it."

In Kaczynski's case, Epstein feared he would become a "martyr" if he were executed. "We can all do without this."

Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Philadelphia, Epstein said his involvement in the Jewish community today is generally confined to synagogue affiliation.

Two of his four children, however, have chosen to immerse themselves in Judaism.

His son, Paul, runs education programs for teens through Seattle's Jewish federation and did similar work when he lived in the East Bay, helping run the Midrasha.

Epstein's daughter, Joanna, is a Brown University senior majoring in Judaic studies. She specializes in Yiddish language and literature, and she interned at the National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts in 1996.

"It's gratifying," he said of their involvement.

Epstein himself will participate in the Hebrew Academy's International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in Burlingame, where he will join a Feb. 14 panel discussion on human cloning.

He still doesn't know exactly which of his activities led Kaczynski to target him.

Epstein is a specialist in the study of genetic disorders, including Down syndrome, and has received a lifetime achievement award from the March of Dimes.

He is past president of the American Society of Human Genetics and former editor of the American Journal of Human Genetics. He heads UCSF's medical genetics division and founded its Medical Genetics Clinic in 1967.

With issues related to gene therapy, Epstein said one must look at the intent and the possible outcomes of such work.

"I'm not an expert in halachah [Jewish law]. But as I read what is written and said, there is a lot of latitude within religious opinion for therapeutic endeavors."