Joshua Safran’s life has been one of continuous discovery, beginning with his return to Judaism and culminating with his well-known, seven-year battle to free a woman wrongly convicted of murdering her batterer.
Safran, a Berkeley resident, will share some of those discoveries during a talk Tuesday, May 15 at the Jewish Comunity Library in San Francisco intriguingly titled “Moses, Marijuana and Violence: Stories of Return.”
The “marijuana” part stems from something Safran learned in the Holy Land: Cannabis was a sacred ingredient in the incense that was burned in the Temple. Aryeh Kaplan, the thinker and writer who helped spur the ba’al tshuvah movement (returnees to Judaism), wrote about the herb as a cornerstone of Jewish mysticism.
“In the Jewish mystical tradition, I believe that marijuana did and should play a role in allowing practitioners to enter into altered states where the Divine whisper can be more audible,” Safran said in an interview last week. “I’m also an activist against family violence, and I see marijuana as playing a vital role in calming would-be batterers down and counteracting the negative effects of stress, anger and alcohol.”
The seeds of that activism were planted in Safran’s childhood, when he saw his mother violently abused by her husband, Safran’s stepfather.
Eventually that led him to devote years to working on behalf of the late Deborah Peagler, a devoutly Christian African American woman who spent 26 years in prison for her alleged involvement in the murder of a man who abused her, forced her into prostitution and raped her daughters. Safran and other attorneys finally got Peagler released from her 25-years-to-life sentence in August 2009; she died of lung cancer less than a year later.
Safran said it was his Judaism that led him to take on the case, which he described as a “spiritual odyssey as well as a legal battle.”
That odyssey in turn spurred him to quit a successful land-use practice (with Bingham McCutcheon) and start his own firm, the Safran Law Group, which helps victims of domestic violence and the wrongly accused. His successful representation of Peagler has led to a flood of clients, such as a current case of an indigent, elderly Latino man whose Medi-Cal benefits have been cut. Also, he has been helping the Contra Costa Jewish Day School get entitlements for a new building.
“I am devoted to my pro bono work, but I cannot afford not to have a day job,” he said. “And I have a wonderful day job,” he said, as a deputy attorney for the Oakland Port Authority. That makes for a heavy workload, although nothing interferes with Shabbat with his wife and three daughters.
Safran has won numerous awards for his work, including the Pursuit of Justice Award (from the California Women’s Law Center) and the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Award (from three groups). And his work on behalf of Peagler is recounted in the documentary “Crime after Crime,” for which Berkeley filmmaker Yoav Potash was awarded the prestigious 2012 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism. On April 25, the 95-minute 2011 documentary was released on DVD.
Raised by neo-pagans in the Pacific Northwest, Safran said he was “literally brought up among stargazers and sun worshippers” in an off-the-grid rural counterculture. On the move for much of his childhood, he and his mother made their home alternately in a school bus, a teepee, a one-room cabin and utopian communities.
His mother, whom he describes as deeply spiritual, practiced Wicca and paganism; the husband who abused her was a self-styled shaman.
Safran turned to Judaism as a teen. In Judaism, he suddenly found explanations for why his family loved books, didn’t celebrate Christmas, and always had questions about identity and ethics. “I felt a sense of relief,” he said. “There was word and a tradition that explained why we were different.”
He devoured every book on Judaism, Jewish history and Israel the local library stocked. “I realized I was standing on the shoulders of those who came before me,” he said. “Moses, Abraham — both grew up in non-Jewish households.”
In college, he immersed himself in Jewish life. That led to yeshiva study in Tsfat.
Safran’s legal work speaks of an internal journey, said Naomi Tucker, founder and executive director of Shalom Bayit. Tucker said the Bay Area organization, which supports and advocates for battered women, has not partnered with Safran on any projects, but said his work has had a dramatic effect on victims and the way they are perceived.
“He represents what attorneys should be all about,” she said. “He felt a calling to do this work. He took on the Los Angeles district attorney, which is no small feat. He made a decision because of his Jewish values.”
Touched by all that Safran has done, Howard Freedman, director of the BJE’s Jewish Community Library, invited him to speak. “He has an unconventional and a very compelling story,” Freedman said.
Safran is working on a memoir about his childhood that he hopes will be published next year. However, his talk will focus on adult experiences and Jewish ideas, and he especially wants to inspire the non-observant to explore their Jewish roots.
People shouldn’t be scared, he said. “It’s ‘I don’t know Hebrew,’ or, ‘What if I go to somebody’s house and do the wrong thing?’ Well, there was this guy … who talked with a funny accent and married a non-Jew. He became Moses.
“Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest sages, and he was an agnostic if not an atheist until the age of 40,” Safran added. “This is a motif. Not only does the Torah provide access, it invites people.”
“Moses, Marijuana and Violence: Stories of Return,” a talk by Joshua Safran, 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 15 at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www. bjesf.org or (415) 567-3327.