Home / Community / Bagels & BytesRSS Feed
Bagels & Bytes for May 31st, 2002
May 31st, 2002
“I guess my Jewish upbringing had more of an effect on me than I thought,” said Peter Goldberg, 54, a state public defender for the past 22 years.
In defending adult indigent criminals, “some of whom I know to be guilty,” Goldberg says he finds his work “hugely satisfying. I think what I do is the most human area of law because I deal with people who have demonstrated some aspect of humanity — whether it be weakness, fear or vulnerability. They need assistance because they are in a position to be accused of committing a crime because they are vulnerable in society.”
Goldberg said things are not always as simple as they appear. “Even when [the indigent] are guilty of a crime, they require someone to explain their side. The powerful justice system is frequently insensitive to their needs and problems.
“It is my job to hold the state to do its duty to prove and punish the guilty according to rules of law [and my obligation] to maintain the liberty of all people, some of whom could be unduly oppressed....”
From his Jewish perspective, Goldberg is reminded of the story of Moses, who on receiving the Ten Commandments returns to finds his people idolizing the golden calf.
“Moses pleads to God on their behalf, which is a very Jewish role, and tells God that if he is going to kill his people, he must kill him too — for he, too, is a product of the society. I feel my Judaism led me to this career, which is a very helping profession. I think that’s why a lot of the defense bar is Jewish.”
Goldberg said when he defends even the most hardened of criminals, he learned from the Talmud to look to find their divine image. “I know it’s there someplace and, often, looking for it keeps me going,” he said.
He came upon his career, which he calls his vocation, by default. After receiving his law degree, he joined his family’s labor law practice. “Six years later, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do and I ended up as a public defender. Unfortunately, I find myself in a growing industry. Personally, I wish we’d go out of business — that our services wouldn’t be needed,” he added.
However unlikely that may be, Goldberg is out in the community trying to rescue kids from becoming his clients.
For the past several years, he has been involved with the Latino Community Center, which he likened to the old Lincoln Settlement House, the forerunner of the Jewish Community Center.
Said Goldberg, “We serve the same kind of purpose. We offer an after-school tutoring program to help avoid dropouts and are actually working on developing an alternate school. I believe education is the key that will ultimately improve society.”
In addition, through his synagogue, Congregation Shir Hadash, he’s involved with MICAH, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied of Hope, which, among other activities, advocates on behalf of drug treatment programs. “We support alcohol and drug counseling. For me, it shows how addressing social problems are really inter-related with criminal defense issues.”
He is also a member of the Milwaukee Arts Board, a group that aims to foster an appreciation of the arts in the city.
“I like being involved with communal activities that address social problems because in some way maybe we can make a difference in society. We, as a community, need to develop adequate resources for the prevention of crimes. Crime is really the failure of society to educate people,” he said.
Passionate about life and the needs of others, he said, “I continue to surprise myself at what I’m doing. Who’d think a kid from middle-class Milwaukee would spend every day defending poor criminals?”
The Milwaukee native grew up in Shorewood and belonged to Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. “Having drifted away from the actual practice of Judaism, I had belonged to a havurah group that had morfed.
“After being involved in a most horrific case, I was so upset that I didn’t know where to turn for comfort. I realized it was a Friday night so I went to synagogue. That’s when my Jewish renewal began. I was recruited by a friend to join Shir Hadash, which I’ve found offers a creative way of moving traditional Judaism into the modern world. I’ve conducted my own seders, written my own haggadot and led services which I feel are open to innovative thought about Judaism.”
Now, as he looks back to his youth, he realizes the profound impact his rabbi, the late Dudley Weinberg, had on him. “I was really moved by Rabbi Weinberg, and as I think about my life, I never thought I would be that Jewish.”
Goldberg had a cinnamon raisin bagel and coffee at Einstein Brothers Bagels on Downer Ave.
By Mardee Gruen