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Community Struggles with Deaths of Five Jewish Family Members in Arizona Murder-Suicide

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The Jewish community of Tempe, Arizona is still coming to grips with the horrific tragedy that occurred in their midst on Shabbat at the beginning of June, when James Butwin, who sat on the board of the local Reform congregation Temple Emanuel, apparently killed his 40-year-old wife Yafit, 16-year-old daughter Malissa, 14-year-old son Daniel and 7-year-old son Matthew, before committing suicide.

According to the local police, all five bodies were discovered in a burning SUV that was registered under the Butwin name, but had been missing from the family’s home. The alleged murderer was a businessman who – in addition to being in the process of a divorce – was beset with significant financial and medical troubles.

“There are no answers for something this tragic,” Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, where James Butwin was a member of the synagogue board, told mourners during a June 6 service. “It is time to come together, to be together in our shock and horror and fear… Expect no answers tonight.”

In quick responses meant to help family friends cope with the shock of the massacre, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Tempe sent a crisis response team to Temple Emanuel and dispatched therapists to the East Valley Jewish Community Center, where seven-year-old Matthew Butwin was scheduled to attend summer camp.

Although in the process of divorce, Yafit had celebrated her husband’s birthday, posting a photo and a message—“Happy Birthday Jim, I am so proud of my three children 🙂 and they know why”—on Facebook.  Hours later, in the middle of the desert, all were dead.

The Butwin family was an active part of the Jewish community in Tempe. Rabbi Shapiro said the family had a “circle of friends full to bursting.” Only friends mourned the Butwin family; no relatives had yet arrived from Israel, Yafit’s homeland, or from New Jersey, where James is from. More than 600 attended “a very brief service of grief, bringing the community, the schools together,” Temple Emanuel member Paul White said.

The service was not a funeral. In the tradition of placing a stone on a grave, for more than 20 minutes the 600 mourners filed past five holders, placing symbolic glass beads.

Temple Emanuel board member Steven Gotfried has been designated as the congregation’s spokesperson, a role he called “very challenging and difficult.” In an interview, he said “the word that comes to mind is shock. Disbelief and a sort of a numbness…We are trying to grasp this, to get an understanding…sad,” he said.

Gotfried said a Butwin neighbor had commented that “this was not the Jim that we know. There was something going on that caused this—something physically going on with his brain and his mind. The Jim we knew and loved and played with was not the Jim that did this.” James Butwin, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, was described by Gotfried as having been a “warm, personable person… just a nice guy, kind, very laid-back, a man who listened more than he spoke.”  

“There was a profound sense of shock and grief when the news was known,” said Gotfried. “A need for people to get together, to comfort each other.”

Gotfried, whose daughter had shared a Hebrew school class with Daniel Butwin, the older boy, was asked if anyone in the family had sought help, either from the rabbi or any other community resource. “Even if so,” he said, “they were private conversations, not to be shared.”

Now, after the tragedy, Jewish Family Services of Phoenix has responded very publicly, providing counselors for adults and children and helping form a Jewish community crisis group, offering advice to staff and lay leaders “trying to make sense of it,” and providing “advice on how to talk to your children,” Gotfried said. 

Gotfried noted that the investigation is revealing “more and more information” about the Butwins’ once private lives. Court records confirm the divorce proceedings, but with no history of domestic violence. Jim Butwin’s divorce lawyer, Bill Bishop, told the Arizona Republic that domestic and financial issues “were being handled professionally,” and that “there was no indication whatsoever that he was upset or anything.” He said, “This is one of the most cowardly acts that anybody could ever do.”

Cowardly, but not unplanned. Tempe police revealed that during the week before the devastating murder-suicide, James Butwin had sent a key to the family’s Corona Estates home and a letter to his business partner. Sgt. Jeff Glover of the Tempe Police Department said that a police inspection of the home revealed “suspicious and concerning evidence” including blood and shell casings in bedrooms and two guns inside the torched SUV found in the Sonoran desert. A second suicide letter has also been found.

Steven Wolfson, Yafit’s attorney, confirmed that the Butwins continued to share their home during the divorce proceedings. An order issued by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jay Polk charged that “both parties shall be cordial to each other in the marital residence and respect each other’s privacy.”  Said Wolfson,“This is out of the blue as far as we’re concerned.” 

James Butwin was involved in commercial-property deals. Yafit Butwin, a devoted mother, had recently graduated from Northern Arizona University and started an interior design business. Neighbor Robert Kempton, speaking to the Associated Press, called the tragedy “totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable.”

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