As the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., unfolded in December, members of the Bay Area’s Jewish community — like people around the world — recoiled in horror.
And then they sprang into action. Congregations, nonprofits and other Jewish groups in Northern California have come together in recent weeks about the hot-button issue of gun violence in the U.S., galvanized by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and encouraged by the Obama administration’s promise to pass new gun control legislation.
At Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley, more than 120 people attended a Feb. 2 interfaith forum on gun violence billed as a “Call to Conscience.” After hearing from speakers such as Congressman Mike Thompson (who chairs the House’s gun violence prevention task force), attendees sat in groups of 10 to share personal experiences, feelings and ideas about the problem and possible solutions.
“We just felt it’s timely,” Rabbi Lee Bycel, who brought the idea before other local spiritual leaders in January, told the Napa Valley Register. “This was urgent and we needed to take a leadership role as clergy.”
On Feb. 7, approximately 100 people — including members of two San Francisco congregations, Emanu-El and Or Shalom — gathered outside Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office in San Francisco for an event billed as a “Vigil to End Gun Violence.” Co-organizer Rick Hauptman, who is Jewish but not affiliated with either of the involved synagogues, said the event was a show of support for Pelosi’s and Obama’s calls for universal background checks.
“I’ve been passionate about gun control for decades,” said Hauptman, one of the leaders of the newly formed S.F. Committee to End Gun Violence, which organized the event.
“Obviously the gun violence in Newtown brought it to the forefront of people’s attention around the country. I wish it hadn’t taken the killing of children, which still makes me sick when I think about it … but we were happy with that turnout, happy that people want to get involved. We realize this is a long-term effort.”
Part of that effort includes peppering elected officials with emails, letters and phone calls about gun-violence legislation efforts. In its online listing for the vigil, for example, Congregation Emanu-El posted “other actions,” such as contacting members of Congress (the listing provided phone numbers and Web links).
Also, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council sent out a “call to action” email two weeks ago, asking people to join the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ #VoteonGuns Twitter campaign, which is targeting selected politicians every week with tweets.
Hauptman said his committee hopes to see legislation that accomplishes three goals: mandatory background checks for everyone who purchases firearms; a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazine guns; and a ban on the sale of military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons.
The S.F. Committee to End Gun Violence has scheduled its next meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the nonprofit Global Exchange, 2017 Mission St. in San Francisco. For details, visit www.sfcommitteetoendgunviolence.org.
In the South Bay on Feb. 10, Chabad of Sunnyvale held an evening discussion titled “On Weapons and Wickedness: A Torah Perspective on the Gun Control Debate.” The guest speaker was Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York.
Yaffe said the talk did not take a political side; rather, he aimed to help participants understand what Jewish text could offer by way of wisdom about weapons and violence — attitudes that, he said, are often at odds with Western values.
“I can’t get up and say that the Torah has this opinion about this particular piece of legislation or campaign, but … we do want to look at questions like the impact of one person’s choice on their community,” Yaffe said before the talk.
“In Judaism, the question is not ‘What are my rights?’ or ‘What am I entitled to?’ Western culture begins with the idea of ‘This is me and my space.’ Judaism talks about the individual in terms of responsibility: What is my responsibility to the community? What’s my responsibility to not allow someone to use violence, or to do things that are wrong?”
Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, on the other hand, is much less philosophical about gun control — it’s a political issue, he believes.
“I think the most important thing for a Jew to hear is that it’s not enough to cry when you hear about a gun violence death,” Creditor said in an interview this week. “You have to act. And in order to act, you have to know things. You have to remember that the NRA is 80 percent funded by gun makers [and] that this is not a question of the Second Amendment; it’s a question of protecting profit.”
Creditor was one of nine rabbis from around the nation who took part in a gathering of 80 clergy in Washington, D.C., during the last week of January, speaking out against gun violence on behalf of the national nonprofit PICO’s Lifeline to Healing Campaign. (PICO stands for People Improving Commun-ities through Organizing).
“It was an important waking-up moment,” Creditor said of the gathering. “The reason most of us were there was [the shooting at] Sandy Hook, and what we learned in D.C. was that there’s no way to describe the loss of 26 human beings … but 33 Americans die every day from gun violence, and the vast majority of those happen in urban settings.”
The rabbi and other clergy members met with policy-makers from Vice President Joe Biden’s office, as well as community organizers from Boston, Chicago and other cities greatly affected by gun violence. One upshot of those meetings, Creditor said, was what felt like “a renewed beginning of a social contract between the African American and the Jewish community.”
A perhaps more concrete result of the meeting was a book. “Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence” is scheduled to be published this week. It’s a collection of essays and discussion questions by rabbis from different denominations.
Creditor suggested congregations and other groups buy or download the book to read for a “Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath,” March 10 and 11, an interfaith project of the PICO network that the organization says has attracted interest from 150 synagogues and other faith congregations around the country. The book is available on Amazon and at www.createspace.com/4155643.
Creditor added that he hoped the Jewish community would be spurred by the issue of gun control into taking part in a more broadly drawn, national conversation about violence.
“I think the organized Jewish community has long felt that it is always under assault, and I would say that it has forgotten in many ways what it is to truly be threatened in the way that many other Americans are every day,” he said.
“This isn’t a theoretical, posturing moment for rabbis,” he continued. “As I was standing on the steps of the White House, about to enter to give a testimony, I got a text from a member of my community saying a 7-year-old girl had just been shot in Oakland.
“Don’t stop paying attention just because you don’t see another headline like Newtown.”