Grassroots rabbinical action group fixes its sights on gun violence
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With 90 daily gun-related deaths, 'It's like three Newtowns a day'

Grassroots rabbinical action group fixes its sights on gun violence

Over 800 cross-denomination rabbis and rabbinical students align to push manufacturers and local politicians to use their influence to lower gun deaths

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A victim's family leaves a firehouse staging area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, where authorities say a gunman opened fire, leaving 27 people dead, including 20 children in 2012. (photo credit: AP/Jessica Hill)
A victim's family leaves a firehouse staging area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, where authorities say a gunman opened fire, leaving 27 people dead, including 20 children in 2012. (photo credit: AP/Jessica Hill)

At the inaugural conference call for Rabbis Against Gun Violence, a grassroots initiative of over 800 cross-denominational rabbis, it was only fitting that the initiative’s chair, Rabbi Menechem Creditor, give a few words of Torah to start things off.

Referencing this week’s Bible portion, Creditor zoomed in on the image of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. He said that unlike the dramatic sea split depicted in Hollywood blockbuster “The Prince of Egypt,” or the staff in the sea moment by (proud gun-lobbier) Charleston Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” what is written in the Torah is “not an immediate parting of the waters.”

“It’s a gradual process. The verse reminds us over and over that when Moses held his arm over the sea, God drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry ground. That’s when the waters were split, and to understand our work very clearly… we are in this for the long haul and it’s going to take wind and spirit all night every night until we get this job done.”

‘We are in this for the long haul and it’s going to take wind and spirit all night every night until we get this job done’

In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel a few hours after the mass conference call, Creditor said that for him personally, the impetus to take on gun violence came after the tragic Newtown school shooting. On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adult staff members.

Back then in 2012, he was invited to be part of a 100-strong clergy delegation in Washington, DC. However, after hearing his rabbi father recount an incident in which a congregant in his Richmond, Virginia synagogue lost a son to gun violence, and then, when visiting his grave, was shot and killed herself, the realization hit home that Newtown is not an isolated incident.

Indeed, on Friday, hours after the rabbis’ conversation, a 17-year-old suspect allegedly shot and killed four in a small community in Saskatchewan, two at a private home and two at the La Loche Community School.

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil held behind Stratford High School on the Town Hall Green in Stratford, Connecticut on Saturday December 15, 2012, remembering victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown. (photo credit: The Connecticut Post, Christian Abraham/AP)
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil held behind Stratford High School on the Town Hall Green in Stratford, Connecticut on Saturday December 15, 2012, remembering victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown. (photo credit: The Connecticut Post, Christian Abraham/AP)

The Newtown massacre spurred his gun-control activism and a year later, Creditor wrote a moving mournful prayer that was shared broadly across the Internet. Also in 2013, Creditor edited a collection of rabbis’ writings called “Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.” The book’s preface was written by fellow activist Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who today serves on the Executive Leadership Team of the new grassroots group.

In conversation Friday, Creditor told The Times of Israel that some 90 people daily die from gun violence in the United States.

“It’s like three Newtowns a day,” he said.

Understanding that legislation to counter the trend is not forthcoming from Congress, the groups’ leaders, Creditor, Jacobs, and Rabbis Aaron Alexander, Michael Adam Latz, and Robyn Fryer Bodzin, decided to use their pulpits to push for other means of gun control.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor (photo credit: Courtesy of Menachem Creditor)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (photo credit: Courtesy of Menachem Creditor)

During the conference call, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz addressed the participants and updated them on the steps currently being taken by the Obama administration to circumvent the lack of legislation. He included the startling statistic that two out of three gun-related deaths are through suicide.

As rabbis, many of whom counsel congregants, this is an area in which they particularly hope to help. In one step, they are pushing for more mental health reporting of suicide risks, which would put the patients on a black list for purchasing weapons.

“Suicide attempts that don’t involve firearms usually fail, and are called in the mental health community ‘gestures.’ When someone who is suicidal doesn’t have access to a gun, we can usually save their lives. The gesture indicates how dire their situation is,” said Creditor. “However, with such easy access to firearms, the number of suicides just keeps growing.”

The group is, as of this week, now a project of existing NGO Do Not Stand Idly By‘s gun control campaign. The NGO, which defines itself as a diverse network of citizens’ groups rooted in religious congregations, is pushing a three-fold agenda: “to significantly reduce the number of firearms-related deaths, injuries and crimes in America; safeguard the ability of law-abiding Americans to own firearms for personal use; and modernize and stabilize the US gun industry.”

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords greets Jackie Barden, right, mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Daniel Barden, as local supporter Mary Ann Sosnoff, center, looks on at the Orchard Street Chop Shop in Dover, NH. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords greets Jackie Barden, right, mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Daniel Barden, as local supporter Mary Ann Sosnoff, center, looks on at the Orchard Street Chop Shop in Dover, NH. (photo credit: AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

One little-discussed possibility for change stated by Rabbi Joel Mosbacher from Do Not Stand Idly By during the conference call stems from the fact that American citizens’ tax money is used to purchase 40% of all guns in the US — the military buys about 25%, and law enforcement 15%.

The NGO hopes to influence public officials — mayors, senators, and governors — so they will push gun manufacturers to invest in technology that will only allow the guns’ owner to fire it, and for increased oversight of “bad” stores who are known to supply criminals.

‘Even in the absence of that [gun control] legislation, manufacturers can control and shut down their worst dealers, and invest in technology’

“Manufacturers have the ability to control their worst dealers,” said Mosbacher. There are about 10,000 gun shops across the US, he said, and only about 1% of the stores are responsible for 60% of guns that turn up in crime scenes. “There are about 100 bad apple gun dealers that are responsible for a huge amount of the gun trafficking,” he said.

“Even in the absence of that [gun control] legislation, manufacturers can control and shut down their worst dealers, and invest in technology,” said Mosbacher.

Do Not Stand Idly By and Rabbis Against Gun Violence will hold a day of action on February 2. Among the planned steps is a campaign in which Mosbacher said they will ask politicians and heads of institutions that have their own security forces, such as hospitals, colleges, to sign on a Request For Information (RFI) that calls “for answers from manufacturers and to explore common concerns around gun safety, responsible distribution, and how manufacturers can best assist law enforcement in limiting illegal gun trafficking.”

Creditor is cautiously optimistic about the grassroots rabbinical group. They have, he said, the backing of the major liberal denominations’ presidents and are being aided by other Jewish activism organizations such as Bend the Arc and Truah.

“Writ large, the most exciting part is the mobilization of rabbis and state leaders across the country, making the statement that congress has failed us — and we can still save lives,” said Creditor.

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