When a gunman murdered 49 people and wounded another 53, some of them grievously, at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, on June 12, it is fair to say that the whole nation went into shock.
What was behind the murderer’s spree? People immediately came out with a wide range of possible motives and explanations, ranging from homophobia to mental illness to Islamic terrorism to anti-Latino bias to the lack of proper gun control. Because the murderer attacked an LGBTQ club on Latin night, because he had pledged allegiance to ISIS in the midst of his attack, because he had a semi-automatic attack rifle, and because it was clear both from his actions and then from his history that he was mentally unbalanced, there was evidence for every single one of those theories, and probably he was motivated by more than one of them.
So, given the horror, and given the lack of clarity, most officials responded immediately with platitudes rather than action; to be fair, there were not many actions that suggested themselves immediately. But a week or so after the carnage, it seemed to many local religious leaders, thoughts and prayers by themselves were not enough.
The Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Council decided to respond with a prayer vigil last Wednesday night at the Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge. During the vigil, the dead victims were named, one by one, and then participants were asked to call their U.S. representative, Scott Garret (R- 5th District) and the two New Jersey senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, asking for help on passing laws on background checks for would-be gun buyers.
Because the crime was so complex, so was the response to it, Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson said. “There were a number of different impulses. Obviously people wanted to pray for the victims, to get together and make a statement of solidarity and peace in the face of violence. Solidarity with the LGBT community and with all people of faith. That’s how it started — and that’s where it became interesting.”
First, she said, the group was troubled by the fact that all the council members are Jewish or Christian. That’s not because local Muslims refuse to join, but because there are no mosques or other Islamic organizations in the council’s catchment area. “So we reached beyond our borders to three Muslim groups we had worked with before,” she said. Because it was Ramadan, and because there was less than a week’s notice, none of them could join in the evening, but it was a good thing to have done, she said.
Next, there was the question of “what do we mean when we say we stand with the victims,” Rabbi Orenstein continued. What community? “Does it mean the LGBT community? The Latino community? Are we standing with victims of gun violence?
“It led to a good conversation among the clergy. Obviously it’s not either/or. We want to stand with all these people. But there was a felt need, perhaps because the LGBT community is so excluded by everyone, to make it the center. To say that it’s not about terror, not about guns, not about the Latino community.
“My initial impulse was for greater inclusivity,” she continued. “The more the better, and I saw no conflict between these things. I have a tendency to think about the worst-case scenario from a congregant’s perspective. If you were the parent of an adult schizophrenic, and your greatest fear is that one day your child will acquire a gun and commit a similar act, and you walk in and are told that this has nothing to do with guns or mental illness, it’s only about the LBGT community, then we have just alienated someone we didn’t need to alienate.
“There were other clergy who looked at the same situation and said, ‘Yes, but given that the violence was directed at the LGBT community, given that it is the last community that it is safe to hate publicly, don’t they need us to make them the center?’”
The solution to that dilemma emerged organically; the LGBT community was at the center of the vigil, but the others were acknowledged as well.
The service was simple. It started and ended with a hymn, three ministers divided up the names and read them all, as a candle was lit for each, and then Rabbi Orenstein chanted “El Maleh Rachamim.” A little more talking, a little more singing, some phone calls, and it was over.
Wait. Phone calls. What?
The calls were Rabbi Noah Fabricant’s idea. Rabbi Fabricant leads Temple Beth Or of Washington Township. He thought it was necessary, he said, because “the concern I had with the idea of a prayer vigil — and I also was hearing this from other people — was fatigue with the idea of thoughts and prayers.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s an easy way of not doing anything. So I asked if any sort of action was contemplated.”
There hadn’t been yet — the vigil was pieced together quickly — so Rabbi Fabricant volunteered.
His idea, he said, was based on something Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes had done during a recent High Holy Days service. (Franklin Lakes is not in the upper Pascack Valley, so Rabbi Frishman was not at the vigil.)
The Reform movement’s understanding of Jewish law does not prohibit the use of electricity or telephones on Shabbat or chaggim. Still, Rabbi Fabricant said, it was shocking when Rabbi Frishman suggested to her congregants that they pull out their phones during services, turn them on, and call their representatives to lobby for measures to control gun violence; it was a striking symbol of the issue’s importance. (Rabbi Fabricant added that he had not spoken to Rabbi Frishman about this — he hadn’t had time — but he was inspired by congregants’ reports of her action.)
“The reading of the names was extremely emotional,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “It is a powerful ritual, and one that we know from yahrzeits and Yizkor. I think that hearing those names, and lighting a candle for each one — a tea candle in a glass, that looked like a yahrzeit candle — was very powerful, and visually the connection to a yarzheit was very striking.
“At the same time, it was unmistakable that we were in a church, and joined by Christian clergy, wearing their vestments. I think that the commonality of the loss and of the despair about the violence was very apparent.”
One of the pastors is gay and a few are Latino, “and that helped personalize the tragedy, and also made it local,” Rabbi Fabricant added.
After the candles were lit — it takes a long time to light 49 candles, and to clearly read 49 names aloud, Rabbi Orenstein noted — Rabbi Fabricant made his call to action. “I said, ‘I am going to ask you to take your phones out and turn them on,’” he said. Participants were given the three phone numbers, along with a suggested script, which prompted them to introduce themselves as people of faith, and then ask for support with legislation. There were three possible areas on the script — expanding background checks for gun buyers, preventing people on the no-fly or other terrorist watch lists from buying them, and banning the sale of assault rifles and similar weapons. Participants were not asked to stick to the script, but to use it if it made them more comfortable than ad-libbing.
“I know that we often are told to call our representatives, and most people don’t do it,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “Often I don’t do it. But doing it all together made it different.
“I made my calls from the pulpit, standing right beside the 49 lit candles,” he added. “I know that for me this felt like faith in action.”