I recently asked my congregants to raise their hands if they have been directly affected by gun violence. In a room of close to one hundred people, less than ten people raised their hands.
On January 28th 2013, I was one of nine rabbis from various movements who was invited as part of a group of around eighty faith leaders from all religions and denominations organized by PICO Lifelines to Healing, a group that organizes faith leaders around various issues that impact faith communities, to travel to Washington, D.C to discuss the issue of gun violence with each other, White House and Congressional leaders. I went because I was moved by the tragedy at Sandyhook Elementary, the faces of those children, the story of Noah Posner. However, it was not just this incident that moved me and affected the Jewish community: the 1999 attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, California, that injured five, including three little boys, and killed one person, and the perpetrator, a white supremacist with a history of mental illness, used a semi-automatic weapon spraying the room with seventy bullets. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who identifies as a Jew, was shot in Tucson, Arizona, along with many others resulting in six deaths, including a child. The shooter was mentally ill 22-year-old man with a handgun with high capacity magazine. Jews are just as susceptible to suicide as other populations, and over half of suicides among males, who represent 79% of all suicides, are by firearm. In Judaism, we don't view the overwhelming majority of suicides as a weakness, but a result of a disease, depression and mental illness. Gun violence does affect the Jewish community, but I will be honest, watching the funerals and hearing those eulogies, hearing the stories of the affected families, and seeing the faces of those parents in Newtown, moved me more than before, just as it has moved this entire country.
I traveled to Washington D.C. on January 28th to stand with my brothers and sisters from the faith community to give our perspective on gun violence and to make sure that this issue will still be on the forefronts of our nation’s leaders. The conference room was filled with religious leaders from all different backgrounds and faiths, but the majority were African-American pastors. We had a great time together, talking about our lives as religious leaders in this country, getting to know each other in our short time together, but it was not all fun and games.
At one point, they asked us to write down our own personal stories of gun violence. Here was the problem - few rabbis had direct stories, but the pastors sitting at our tables did. Pastor Michael McBride, the director of the Lifelines to Healing campaign and pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkley, told us this story: "Two years ago, I presided over the funeral of Larry, a teen from my congregation who was shot and killed in the Bay Area. More than 500 grief-stricken teenagers filled the pews that day, and I asked how many of them had been to more than one funeral. Far too many hands went up. I kept counting. Three funerals? Four? I got as high as ten, and more than half of the young people in the church wept as their hands remained lifted in the air."
I looked at the African American pastors sitting at my table and they told me how many young people they bury due to gun violence. To bury three teens in a week, or to bury a mother killed in a drive by shooting because they were on the street at night was not out of the ordinary. During one of our sessions, a pastor told us he had just received a text message: one of his eleven year-old congregants, a little girl, was just shot in the face. A rabbi sitting at our table, Gary Creditor, told me a truly tragic story. He had converted an African-American woman, a registered nurse, and her husband who then joined their community. This woman’s son was killed in a drive by shooting and she visited his grave everyday on her way to work at the hospital. One day, after visiting her son’s grave and on her way to work, she too was killed during a drive by shooting, and Rabbi Creditor officiated at her funeral. The story he told me, with tears in his eyes, broke my heart. There are a multitude of similar stories: the story of the woman who lost all four of her children to gun violence, and the story of 15 year old Hadiya Pendleton who performed at the President Barak Obama’s inauguration and a week later was shot in the back and died in Chicago. The pastors continued on, telling me about the fear that their congregants live through just walking in their neighborhoods, mothers kissing their children goodbye in the morning, wondering if their precious gifts will return.
I realized that I could somewhat empathize with them, and some of the rabbis at my table could also because many of us lived in Israel during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). I came to Israel to study just weeks after the bombing at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria where Jewish American students were murdered. Living in Israel during that time was not easy. I remember the feeling I had riding buses the few times I rode them, or the feeling of even walking by a bus, or of walking into a coffee shop or supermarket after being frisked by a security officer. Going to the shuk (open air market) on Friday afternoon, a joyful and exciting pastime became a time of looking over my shoulder in terror and fear. I felt what Bnai Israel felt as they were being oppressed in Egypt so many years ago, a kotzer ruach a crushed spirit (Exodus 6:9). Rashi, the famous medieval commentator (1040 – 1105), writes that the kotzer ruach is whenever “someone is under stress, his wind and his breath are short, and he cannot take a deep breath.” My heart would literally race as I walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and there were times when I felt I could not breathe. I remembered sitting at minyan (daily morning prayer) saying tehillim/Psalms for the five, ten, fifteen or twenty Israelis who were killed in a suicide bombing the previous day, or even one time hearing a bombing in the morning, waiting for sirens, and saying tehillim/Psalms because we assumed the worst. I was lucky, and so was Israel. In time, after certain measures, the bombings stopped, but for my brother and sister pastors in the inner cities of our country, the feeling of a crushed spirit, the kotzer ruach, of living in terror continues day after day.