I grew up in gun country.
As a teenager, I was a student in a public school district in rural Pennsylvania that experienced a shooting in the early 90s. A 16-year-old high school student aimed a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol at a peer, brutally murdering his classmate, while the teacher and fellow students witnessed it in horror.
My sister was in a nearby classroom.
And that’s not all. My father was held up at gunpoint. A friend of mine shot and killed a teenager when I was in the sixth grade. I would find out about it that night, on the local news. We were only 12 years old.
I am not against people owning or carrying guns. Members of my own family are among those who do.
But I am against gun violence.
For the past 18 months, I have been part of a rabbinic fellowship with an organization called JOIN for Justice. (JOIN stands for the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice.) JOIN trains Jewish leaders to organize communities in an effort to strengthen them, while enhancing leaders’ skills in organizing around issues of social justice that affect the broader community.
As part of my fellowship, last spring I led a group of leaders in my synagogue to conduct a listening campaign to hear what concerns were on the minds of our community members.
What did I learn? I learned that the No. 1 concern that was keeping members of my community up at night was gun violence. People were scared to send their children to school. And that was before Pittsburgh.
The tragedy in Pittsburgh put gun violence even further to the front of our minds than it had been before. With the help of volunteers and local government officials, we were able to pull together a vigil after the Pittsburgh tragedy in under 24 hours. More than 300 people attended on that somber Sunday in October as we lit candles in memory of the victims and embraced one another — even strangers — as we sang “Hinei Mah Tov,” a prayer that emphasizes togetherness, unity, and fellowship.
The Pittsburgh shooting exacerbated my community members’ concerns. We began discussing the degree to which we would use metal detector wands and hire additional full-time security. While we would not allow the anti-Semitic acts to prevent us from continuing our rituals and events, deep down we knew we needed to be proactive in our security approaches. And many of us were scared.
As much as we increased our security inside our synagogue, outside of our shul, the shootings continued. Simultaneously, my rabbinic colleagues and I joined forces with New Jersey Together, a faith-based organizing group, in an effort to urge government officials to be part of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign. This campaign, which was created after the tragic shooting in Newtown, offers a non-legislative, bipartisan, market-based approach to curb gun violence by calling upon gun manufacturers to distribute their guns responsibly to distributors who perform the necessary background checks. The campaign also urges gun manufacturers to invest in the creation of smart guns, which would keep them out of the hands of those not registered to use them.
I hear from people all the time: “Please keep politics off the bimah, rabbi.”
I hear others say: “Rabbi, I want to hear what Judaism has to say about this political issue.”
Somehow, minoring in Judaic studies and politics and government in college did not prepare me for this, the relationship between religion and politics. Neither did my rabbinic ordination, for that matter.
But what has prepared me for this debate is the Torah. In just weeks, we will read from parashat Kedoshim, the Torah portion that includes part of the Holiness Code. It is in this portion that we read the verse: “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). This is the verse after which the campaign is named.
I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to become a rabbi. I debated about serving in a political capacity because I thought that I could have a better shot at creating a better world. Luckily for me, I get to be a rabbi and help repair our broken world.
Let me be clear, fighting for gun safety in the state of New Jersey is not about politics for me. It is deeply religious. It is my way of fulfilling God’s commandment by literally not standing idly by when I learn about one more shooting, one more death, one more of God’s innocent souls lost in ruthless acts of hatred.
On March 12, I gathered with other faith leaders, community members, and government officials for a press conference in Jersey City, where Governor Phil Murphy and the state of New Jersey would officially sign on to the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also was present and part of the announcement. As I sat in that room, overjoyed at this news, I humbly knew that in some not-so-small way we were there because of the hard work that my colleagues and I, along with our organizers from New Jersey Together and JOIN, did behind the scenes for many months. Leading up to this press conference, we would sit down in meetings with the governor, the attorney general, and others responsible for gun safety in New Jersey. My voice as a religious leader truly mattered, and we, as a group, were not accepting “no” as an answer.
In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, I found myself “praying with my feet.”
As I write this, I have just returned from another vigil at the Fusion Muslim Community Center in Paramus, where I was given a chance to say a few words to the hundreds of people present, members of all races, faiths, and creeds, after the recent attacks on our Muslim brethren in New Zealand. Upon entering the Muslim community center, I was personally welcomed by a little girl and then by a grown woman, who encouraged me to grab a snack from the table of refreshments. The first thing I saw on the table was a box of hamantaschen. How often do you find hamantaschen in a Muslim community center? I am not sure who bought those hamantaschen, but thank you. (Editor’s note: For an answer to that question, see page XX.)
Although I didn’t eat one (I’m trying to cut back), those hamantaschen were so much more than just a snack. They represented oneness, unity, and fellowship, as part of God’s humanity. We Jews were there in solidarity, and we were welcomed.
When I spoke to the crowd, I talked about how the Jewish people just observed Shabbat Zachor, a Shabbat when we are commanded to “never forget” to blot out the evil memory of Amalek and those who ruthlessly tried to attack the Israelites from behind. Likewise, in the story of Purim, we never forget the commandment to blot out the name of Haman, a man who tried to destroy the Jews. Those hamantaschen, which we eat on Purim, remind us that these struggles always have been part of our narrative. But complacency is not the answer.
I grew up in gun country, and now, somehow, my rabbinic work has led me back to the gun world out of a deep desire to fulfill the sacred words of the Torah, that I dare not stand idly by the blood of my neighbor.
When people quote that verse in Leviticus, it often stops there. But the verse continues and says so much more:
“I am the Lord.”
This last statement instills in me a sense of awe and responsibility to God. I cannot stand idly by because I could not face God at the end of the day, knowing I have done nothing. “I am the Lord” is also a reminder that all of our neighbors, together, are God’s creatures.
Republican or Democrat, black or white, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Bahai, or Jewish, I implore all of us to not stand idly by — for the safety of our communities, for the sake of our neighbors and future of our children, and for the divine purpose of sanctifying God’s holy name.
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg is the rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center. For more information on how to be part of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign in Bergen County and beyond, write to her at email@example.com.