Aaron Moskowitz was preparing to share the most personal details of a life of drugs, violence, incarceration and loneliness before a crowd of 150 at Oakland's Temple Sinai last month when he overheard someone say, "I can't believe they'd let someone like that in here."
It hurt plenty.
But, said the 26-year-old reformed skinhead, "I've hurt a lot of people. This is part of a process of restoration for me."
Accompanied by Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Moskowitz went ahead with his talk, "working through the pain and fear" — as he has done many, many times since he renounced his old ways a year ago.
Moskowitz now works as a peer adviser in RSVP, a unique program of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. But for years, he participated in gang wars and preyed upon gays, blacks and Mexicans. Moskowitz's career in crime culminated with a savage attack on a man in the Haight-Ashbury District who had spotted the neo-Nazi tattoos on his bald scalp and insignia on his jacket and challenged his views.
"I was screaming at him that he was betraying the white race," Moskowitz said in an interview on Thursday of last week at ADL's San Francisco office. "I chased him down three times and beat him up, badly."
Moskowitz woke up the next morning in the hospital with a brace around his head, chained to a bed. He'd had a CT scan after being knocked to the ground and passing out. His only requests: "Spell my name right and send me to prison right away." First, he would get recognition and respect for his act among his homeboys. And being in prison meant being safe, playing a familiar role in a world he understood.
He was drawn into a skinhead gang while serving time for drug-related offenses committed as a teenager. It was the only way for him to survive in prison, he said: "The Surenos [gang] kept beating me up, and I got real tired of it."
That part of his story isn't atypical.
But what causes many to do a double-take is that Moskowitz comes from an upper-middle-class Orange County family. His father, who is Jewish, was an aeronautics engineer.
"In Orange County, skinheads are a dime a dozen," he said.
The ADL's Bernstein agrees.
"There's a misconception about skinheads coming from blue-collar families," he said. "Actually, Orange County and Sacramento are our biggest areas."
Moskowitz thumbs through an ADL publication on prison gangs like it was a high school yearbook, smiling faintly at photos of insignia from groups like the Insane White Boys from Westminister, the Nazi Low Riders, or the Aryan Brotherhood whose motto is "Kill to get in, die to get out."
For the most part, the people he knew are all either dead or in prison.
Although ideology was not the original glue that bonded his gang together, "we didn't like blacks as a whole," Moskowitz said.
"I hated myself, I hated the world. "
From Moskowitz's point of view, skinheads like himself ultimately present the biggest threat to themselves, either overdosing or dying a violent death. He believes that ideologically based white supremacist groups, which eschew drugs and alcohol for a military-style discipline, pose a far greater threat.
"We kill ourselves out," he said. "But those other guys, them I'd be afraid of."
Those other guys, said Bernstein, make use of skinheads. They form a recklessly violent front line of attack. "They can take these 16-year-olds and have them commit these very violent acts," he said. "That allows them to stay at a safe distance."
He also said skinheads are "the most violent" of all the groups and are responsible for scores of murders and literally thousands of incidents of synagogue desecrations, assaults, stabbings, harassment and intimidation.
"The Aryan Brotherhood started in the California penal system," Bernstein said. "The climate is conducive. The general public has no clue what goes on behind prison walls."
But it is no accident, he said, that in Jaspar, Texas, "three men got out of prison and dragged James Byrd Jr. to death. They went into prison with hatred, but it really solidified there."
For many skinheads, violence feeds upon the rejection and indifference from family and social institutions. When Moskowitz was a child, his father left the family "and took all his money with him," leaving his wife and their six children to fend for themselves.
Subsequent experiences would reopen those wounds.
Moskowitz recalls being awakened at 2 a.m. one day as he slept in a San Francisco County Jail cell. "They told me I was being released, and they kicked me out on the street at 2 a.m. with no money and nowhere to go," he said.
Desperate to change his life, he called Walden House and several other drug recovery programs. They shrugged him off since he had not proceeded through the correct bureaucratic channels. Said Moskowitz, "I got angrier and angrier."
Eventually, he faced a judge over the Haight Street attack. The district attorney wanted the case tried as a hate crime. Faced with a possible eight-year sentence, Moskowitz started to do some hard thinking about where he was headed, and made a choice to come in from the cold.
The charges were dropped. He apologized to the man he had hurt and asked for his forgiveness. And he found himself released to RSVP.
"It started to make a lot of sense," he said. "That's when I started to understand there was a God."
The program helps its participants understand the roots of their violent behavior, so they can overcome it. They also learn communication skills, to help them deal effectively and nonviolently with others.
"Most people skip over making agreements and setting boundaries and go straight to anger," Moskowitz said. "Violence is a learned behavior and it can be unlearned. But you're talking about reversing 18, 19 years of conditioning."
Peer support and a transitional program is critical to making the change, he said.
"Telling people what to do never worked. I just tell people my story. A guy that did 16 years in prison came to RSVP and I stood up and shared my story. He said, 'Did I just hear that young man say what I thought he said?'" That gave the man a sense that he, too, could overcome what seemed an insurmountable obstacle.
"It's critically important for people to hear a story like Aaron's," Bernstein said. "They learn how it progresses. And he has a real warmth, which really enables people to hear his message."
That's an experience Moskowitz is getting used to. He and his teammates from RSVP have written and performed a play called "Uncommon Ground," which draws on their experiences. Recently, they began including women who have been the victims of violence.
"When the house lights go up, everybody's standing up and clapping and I can see tears in their eyes," he said. "A guy came up to me at work one day and said, 'Hey, I saw you in that play. It changed my life.' That makes me want to start crying, man."
Moskowitz still has "plenty of stuff to work on," particularly guilt. Although personable and quick to smile, a deep "V" between his eyebrows hints at the intensity of that struggle.
"But the prize at the end — nothing compares with that," he said.