It is impossible to emerge from the sidelines of a blood-soaked nightmare like the massacre of schoolchildren at Newtown, Connecticut, two years ago unscathed, untouched, or unchanged.
Shaul Praver, the rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel, did not have a child in the first-grade classrooms that the murderer invaded; he was spared that level of pain. But one of the victims, the youngest one, Noah Pozner, 6, was a member of his shul, and he soon was called into service.
Rabbi Praver will join three other panelists, including Jersey City’s Mayor Steven Fulop, on March 19 to discuss ways to reduce gun violence, including the importance of civility as that emotional subject is raised, and often tempers flare and insults follow.
The morning of Friday, December 14, 2012, he was meeting with a 12-year-old girl who had taken the day off from school to prepare for her bat mitzvah the next day. Her father, a local volunteer fireman, was there as well, but he appeared ill at ease, Rabbi Praver remembered. “He wasn’t exactly his usual self when he walked in at 10:02 that morning. He pulled me aside, and said that he might be called away from this final rehearsal because there was a shooting at the elementary school.
“Of course I reacted, and I said okay. I thought that it was that someone had brought his father’s gun to school. Something like that. And then that incident would have become a big deal. You always think in minimal terms.”
Soon the father was called, and then Rabbi Praver got a call as well. “It was from Father Robert Weiss’s secretary” – Monsignor Weiss headed the local Catholic church, St. Rose of Lima, and his secretary called all the local clergy that morning. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she said, ‘Just get down there. You’re needed.’
“So I went down there.
“It was at the firehouse. It was a big trauma. I was in a room with parents who had not yet been reunited with their children. I remained in the room until the police chief came back at 3 and announced the dreadful news.”
How did he manage to keep going, surrounded by parents who had just been told that their 6- and 7-year-olds had been shot to death? “Your bloodstream releases adrenaline, and actually you feel almost numb,” he said. “You feel like you had a lot of energy injected into you. I don’t know the biology of it, but it is real.”
The effect of that day on Rabbi Praver was transformative. “I never felt rage,” he said. “I felt a profound sadness and heaviness of heart.” He began to work for change.
“I am a prison chaplain today,” he said. “And I got very involved with the whole peace and civility thing.”
Peace and civility are the elements that are absolutely necessary, as necessary as oxygen for human beings, if the country, which “is very polarized on the issue of guns,” is to change, Rabbi Praver said.
“The first thing that needs to happen is civil dialogue.
“Right now, the conversation is very low-grade. People are just yelling at each other,” he said. “We size each other up and put each other in boxes, with labels that say ‘Right wing nut’ or ‘liberal lunatic.’ And then that’s that. That’s where the conversation stops.
“We don’t bother to listen to what the other person really is saying.
“There are some very counterintuitive ways in which we can reach a historic compromise between gun enthusiasts and people who are clamoring for more gun regulations.”
He declined to elaborate on what this counterintuitive way might entail, saying merely that he, a liberal, is working with a conservative libertarian on a project about which he cannot talk now, but that will be huge when it is released. “There is a type of regulation that could be enticing for conservatives, that could be acceptable to them and can address their concerns regarding the tyranny of government,” he said.
Working to solve the problem of gun violence is a deeply Jewish task, Rabbi Praver continued. “The highest value in Jewish law is life. If you need to do something to preserve your life, or someone else’s, on Shabbat, Shabbat takes a backseat. And here we are talking about living in the country where 86 percent of all civilian gun fatalities in the world occur. That’s in the United States of America.
“So here we are, very free and blessed, but we have a problem.
“Approximately 32,000 people die from guns each year, and a much much greater number of people are injured, many of them with life-changing injuries. You’re talking about a huge number of people killed or maimed or traumatized. Everyone knows we have a problem.
“As far as the Jewish perspective goes, as a post-Holocaust generation, we know the history of how Hitler took guns away from Jews. Not from the general population, but from Jews, as undesirables. So in order to be a person of the Jewish faith, advocating for stronger regulation – well, you can be darn sure that I had it checked out. I believe that regulation doesn’t endanger us as a Jewish people.”
As for the violence in Newtown, people heal in different ways, Rabbi Praver said. As busy as he is advocating for a compromise solution to the problem, “my congregation has chosen not to be involved in advocacy, so in a sense my life is in a parallel universe.
“My congregation wants to be an oasis of peace. They don’t want to be retraumatized. That’s not their way of healing. It is for me but it is not for them, and I have to respect it. We have to be together in a situation where we have different needs.”
As for the families of the murdered children and the teachers who died trying vainly to save them, “the victim families are doing incredible things,” Rabbi Praver said. “They are incredible people. The crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of human beings have risen to the top. You didn’t have a movement before – you have a movement now.”
Joel Mosbacher, the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, is also very active in the movement to end gun violence. He is working to put together a coalition of municipal leaders who are not anti-gun but who demand that guns be manufactured to safety standards that will make it more difficult for them to be misused. Among the 70 jurisdictions that have joined his group is Newtown, and Mayor Fulop of Jersey City, who will be speaking at the panel, “was one of the first to sign on,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.
“It is a very complicated issue, to say the least,” he said. “We need all hands on deck, all ideas. I am excited and energized when I meet someone who has an idea of how to go about it.
“When we look back on some of the battles to get seat belts in cars, or to reduce smoking in this country, we see that those battles were won not because one law got passed or there was one public service announcement or one citizens group advocating or one company deciding unilaterally to do the right thing. It took all of these things. I would say that gun violence is similar in some ways.
“When we look back on the history of those societal shifts, we see that people said that it couldn’t be done, and they also said that if it could be done, that it would take a long time.” Gun violence is a similar problem, he suggested. Getting people to stop smoking and to buckle up “took the consistent, committed, persistent efforts of a whole range of people who cared about the issue and pushed it through. Resistance came from the corporate world, from strong, well-financed groups that had every reason to oppose those efforts.
“People say to me all the time that the NRA is so powerful. Yes it is. They have a lot of money and influence, but citizens groups and people who are passionate and organized can have a great deal of power to oppose special interests.
“We’re a special interest too!”
There are two kinds of gun owners, Rabbi Mosbacher said, gun enthusiasts and gun supremacists. The enthusiasts, who tend to belong to the NRA, are reasonable and are not against reasonable regulation. The supremacists are a much smaller but louder group.
It is also true that the second amendment, the one that gives Americans the right to bear arms, makes the argument unlike the ones over seat belts and cigarettes, he conceded. Smoking and wearing seat belts are not constitutionally protected activities.
In fact, “guns are the only product mentioned in the Constitution,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “But we believe that we have developed a strategy that does not abrogate the second amendment, and does not advocate rolling it back. We are working within the constitutional structure; we are just saying that even people who believe in owning guns should want to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
The discussion will continue on Thursday evening.