When Earl Krugel was bludgeoned to death in a prison gym earlier this month, his widow made what would seem to many an unlikely call — to Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak.
The call was unlikely because while Krugel was imprisoned for his work with a militantly right-wing Jewish organization, the Jewish Defense League, Beliak is well known in Los Angeles for his passionate work on behalf of left-wing Jewish peace causes. During the time that Krugel, a former dental technician, is alleged to have been plotting an attack on a Los Angeles mosque, Beliak was working for reconciliation with the Muslim community.
But Beliak, 57, was the Jewish chaplain at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Krugel was held while awaiting trial. As a result, he saw Krugel as much as he did anyone from the outside world during his weekly visits and came to know him as a gregarious, friendly man. Given all their contact, Beliak said that when Lola Krugel’s call came November 5, “I have to say that I took it very hard.”
“As much as we disagreed, as much as we argued and debated, I really cared about this guy,” Beliak said. “I really came to care about him as a brother.”
Beliak had been one of the first people to meet Krugel at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Krugel lived until a month before his death in a Phoenix prison. Beliak had gone to visit Krugel’s isolation chamber — known as the hole — soon after he was arrested along with the Jewish Defense League’s leader, Irv Rubin. The Jewish Defense League was founded in 1968 to battle antisemitism, but members became known for their far-right views on Middle East politics.
“I fully expected to dislike both of these guys because of our political chasm,” Beliak said of that first meeting. Given that a Muslim friend of Beliak’s was one of Krugel’s alleged targets, Beliak said, “I was totally prepared to do what I could to serve their minimal needs, but to stay as far away emotionally as I could.”
Between that first meeting and Krugel’s death three-and-a-half years later, Beliak had contact with Krugel practically on a weekly basis. Krugel became the Torah reader at Beliak’s weekly jailhouse services. Beliak said that while Krugel’s politics never changed, he believes that Krugel’s views on violence did. In the process, Krugel won over an unlikely defender and a rabbi to eulogize him at his funeral.
“They were extremely close,” said Linda Krugel, Earl’s sister, who visited her brother in jail twice a week. Linda Krugel said that her brother talked about the rabbi “millions of times,” and “if Beliak didn’t show up, Earl was extremely disappointed.”
Beliak actually had come into contact with Krugel before that meeting in the hole. When Beliak was the Hillel director at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California during the late 1970s, the students had voted to invite the JDL leadership, including Krugel, to campus. Beliak was opposed to the invitation, but he was outvoted. While he did not veto his students’ decision, he did stand outside the Hillel building while Krugel and Rubin spoke, holding a sign that called the men racists.
They met again two decades later, with the tables turned. In 1999, Beliak spoke at a Los Angeles synagogue about Irving Moskowitz, who owned a bingo parlor in a Los Angeles suburb and sponsored right-wing causes in Israel. Beliak had co-founded an organization that protested Moskowitz’s casino and drew links to his Israeli projects. Beliak remembers Rubin and Krugel in the crowd, heckling him.
Rubin and Krugel were arrested two years later, in December 2001. They were charged with plotting to bomb targets in the Los Angeles area, including a mosque and the offices of Rep. Darrell Issa, who is of Lebanese origin. The two men were kept in the Metropolitan Detention Center, awaiting sentencing. In the case of Rubin, that never came; he died in 2002. Officials ruled the death a suicide, although followers maintain that Rubin was murdered.
Krugel pleaded guilty, and in September of this year he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Recently he had been transferred to a medium-security prison outside Phoenix, when he was struck with a cinder block while working out in the prison gym. The investigation into the identity and motive of the killer is ongoing.
Before either death, however, Beliak found Krugel and Rubin in the hole. The two men were “shocked” by their arrest, although not defiant, as were many prisoners Beliak had met. They spent their first three months in isolation, but after they were released into the general population they quickly joined Beliak’s weekly religious services. Beliak never avoided the topics that divided them, saying he considers Jewish education one of his responsibilities. Beliak’s left-wing views about the conflict in the Middle East necessarily drew him into “heated conversations” with Krugel and Rubin.
“More than once Earl and Irv left with their feelings hurt, and more than once I left with my feelings hurt,” Beliak said. “But one of the things about having a prison to bound you is that you have to come back and talk to the person.”
Beliak said he was immediately struck by the role reversal the two men underwent in prison. While Rubin had been the outspoken leader on the outside, in prison he became withdrawn and depressed. Beliak had trouble engaging him.
Krugel, on the other hand, was outgoing and curious. He frequently would bring interested inmates to the Jewish services, and he became the lead reader from the Torah, always inserting his views on Jewish history into the mix. When Rubin died, Krugel was again put into isolation as officials worked out the security situation. Beliak would visit him each week. They would sit on the floor, talking through the metal grill about Middle Eastern politics and history, as well as about Krugel’s more mundane interests in coin and mineral collecting.
American prisons are known for allowing outside prejudices to fester — serving as a breeding ground for white supremacists and urban gangs. But Krugel did not have a support network of Jewish militants. While Krugel’s politics did not change, Beliak said that Krugel’s ideas about the proper way to act on these views did change.
“He came to appreciate the distinction between hot words and violence,” Beliak said.
Linda Krugel pointed to a similar change in her brother and said it was a result of his forced contact with other inmates.
“He got to know people on a personal level and saw things very differently,” she said. “I was even surprised about him. He had a sensitivity and sympathy with people he never would have spoken with in the past.”
The subject of Krugel’s metamorphosis continues to be a matter of debate. In 2003, during sentencing hearings, two Muslim inmates wrote on Krugel’s behalf. The prosecutor in the case, however, argued that Krugel had paid for the letters.
At his more recent sentencing, in September, Krugel told the judge that he had renounced violence, saying, “Violence only begets violence.” The sentencing judge rejected Krugel’s declaration. “People don’t change like that overnight,” U.S. District Court judge Ronald Lew said.
Krugel kept up at least some interest in the JDL, as is evidenced in his pen pal relationship with Richard Miller, who says he is the JDL chapter head in Colorado (the leadership of the JDL is a matter of dispute and legal wrangling). Although Miller had never met Krugel before he was imprisoned, the two exchanged more than 50 letters about Middle East politics and antisemitism during Krugel’s imprisonment. Miller, who was one of four people to give a eulogy at Krugel’s funeral, said that he “didn’t change at all. He was very strong from within.”
About Krugel’s relationships with other inmates, Miller said, “When you’re incarcerated, you do what you have to do to survive. As a matter of survival, if being friends with a Muslim was to his benefit, I’m sure he would have been.”
Beliak said that throughout his time in the Los Angeles jail, Krugel was always a master of survival. He worked out daily and looked forward to having a few years of life after his release.
Beliak last saw Krugel on October 11, after his sentencing. Krugel was about to be transferred to another prison, and Beliak said, “I told him that I would go see him wherever he ended up.”
The next time Beliak saw him was at a funeral home in Burbank, Calif., where the left-wing rabbi gave an emotional eulogy for the right-wing militant.