Preventing violence must become a Jewish priority

The slaughter at Columbine High School could have happened here. The number of violent school incidents is increasing, and all of our children are now at risk. Determining how we as a community can respond is critical.

An ongoing challenge for our community has been determining what is and isn't a Jewish issue. If you talk with your friends, they would likely point to such core Jewish issues as aiding Israel, helping fellow Jews, fighting school prayer and supporting religious freedom.

But what about issues such as violence and poverty? Where do they fit in our overall scheme of things?

I would suggest that the greatest area of concern for American Jews is the protection of democracy and the Constitution. Because of them, we can pray as we choose, send our children to day school, support Israel, and vocalize loudly and proudly our concerns as Jews. We are not a tolerated minority but an equal partner.

And I would argue that while our core, particularistic issues should always be on the frontburner, we must embrace the universalistic issues that so greatly effect all of our lives. For indeed, the greatest threat to democracy today is not the Christian Coalition, but violence and poverty. We must mobilize and do our part to effect change, and we must act as Jews not just as Americans.

Mobilizing as Jews and joining others involved in these struggles increases understanding between different religious, ethnic and economic communities.

Perhaps we should look to what our tradition teaches us. The Torah and the Talmud are filled with commandments to improve the world, and not only for ourselves.

As early as Noah and the Flood, we learn that "the end of all flesh has come before me, for the world is filled with violence…" (Genesis 6:13).

"Great is peace, for God's name is peace…it is written, Seek peace and pursue it" (Leviticus Rabbah, Tzav, IX, 9).

"One person alone was brought forth at the time of creation in order to teach us that one who destroys a single human soul is regarded as the destroyer of the whole world, while one who preserves a single human soul is regarded as the preserver of the whole world" (Mishnah Sanhedrin IV, 5).

Two lessons that are most appropriate touch my heart most deeply in these difficult days: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs) and "They shall sit, each one under his vine and his fig trees, and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).

We need to reflect on such teachings. If we look to Judaism for guidance and direction, we can indeed find the right path. We need to teach our children both spirituality and the lessons of our tradition. And we need to teach them how these values should manifest themselves in living our daily lives.

Rather than taking our children to target-shooting practice, we should be teaching them safety measures, how to lobby and how to work within the community to decrease the risk of violence. We should be holding forums in our community centers and synagogues, creating telephone and e-mail legislative alert networks, promoting mentoring programs and working with other community agencies to co-sponsor after-school programs.

We need to have public discussions about what is happening in our society that leads to children killing other children. What is the inner torture that has turned them to violence? Why are neo-Nazi and satanic groups attractive? Why are children feeling so alienated? Why are we as a country and as a community failing our children?

We need to be sounding the clarion call to our legislators to get guns off the street, eliminate the manufacture of assault weapons, reduce the number of gun dealers and require safety locks on all firearms.

We need to take a critical look at ensuring economic opportunity to stop the downward spiral of poverty and its causal relationship to the proliferation of all forms of violence. If we bombard our lawmakers' offices with telephone calls, faxes and e-mails, there will be a positive response.

At one point abortion became a core Jewish issue. It broke through the barrier that separates concerns into core Jewish issues and those that we care about as Americans. Our involvement, as Jews, made a huge difference in securing reproductive freedom. We are faced with the same challenge and the same opportunity to make a difference.

The AJCongress has tried to do its part. Our regional office is home to the Jack Berman Advocacy Center– a violence-reduction program created in memory of a former regional president gunned down in the 101 California Street slayings in 1993.

It is time to make violence reduction a Jewish communal priority. We can make a difference.