Local rabbi takes aim at gun violence prevention
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Local rabbi takes aim at gun violence prevention

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Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, at far right, at a gun show in Nurenburg, Germany. The other faith leaders, from left, are Rev. Tyrone Stevenson, Rev. Richard Gibson, Diane Boese, Donna Weinberger, Rev. Patrick O’Connor, Rev. Anthony Bennet, and Joe Morris.

Sometimes, being number one is a dubious distinction.

Certainly, that holds true in the case of gun ownership, where the United States – with 97 guns per 100 people – holds first place in the world.

That means that there are more than 300 million guns in the country. That makes it easy to agree with Rabbi Joel Mosbacher that “there’s a real culture of gun love in this country.”

The religious leader of Mahwah’s Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom since 2001, Rabbi Mosbacher has perhaps an even greater and more personal interest in these statistics than do most concerned citizens.

“My work in this area is personal,” he said. “My father was murdered in Chicago 15 years ago.”

Now, “for the first time, I feel there is a meaningful thing to do with this story.”

Over the next year, Rabbi Mosbacher will spend half of his time working directly with his congregation, and the rest of the time working on what he calls a “powerful campaign.”

Under the auspices of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a national network of multifaith community organizations, Rabbi Mosbacher will help communities across the country engage in an initiative to prevent gun violence. New Jersey Together, which is part of the national coalition and has tackled issues ranging from the environment to hunger, was instrumental in creating the new national strategy.

The campaign, which takes its name, “Do not stand idly by,” from the Book of Leviticus, “will resonate with people of faith as well as with lawmakers,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. Its goal is to “leverage the purchasing power of cities and states – who buy 40 percent of the guns in the country – to pressure gun manufacturers to create safer gun distribution standards.

“We’re trying to hold [gun companies] accountable,” he said, describing the companies as “pretty powerful players in this story.”

This approach, which the rabbi will further through visits, conference calls, videoconferencing, and Skyping with faith leaders across the country, already is being used in 10 states.

“After Newtown, New Jersey Together and the national organization tried to figure out how to act powerfully on the issue of gun violence,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “The leaders helped develop a national strategy.”

With the leverage approach already being tried in a number of states, “the national organization began to look at this as a national campaign,” he continued. Once that decision was made, leaders of the national group realized that they needed staff members to coordinate the efforts of the various states.

“I was pushing for a national staff person,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “The leaders of Metro IAF said, ‘Why don’t you do it?'”

Although he explained that “I’m a congregational rabbi, born to do it, and that I love being one of the lay leaders in New Jersey Together,” Rabbi Mosbacher was urged to reconsider.

“Their view was that because I have a personal story and connection to the issue and because my congregation [helped] develop the strategy, I could bring something special to the campaign.”

After extended conversations with both Metro IAF and his congregation, it was agreed that the national organization would provide the congregation with enough resources to bring in a full-time assistant rabbi “for one year, in exchange for my being able to work on the campaign half-time. That is “an extraordinary gift from the congregation,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

He is also flattered by Metro IAF’s belief that he is a person “who could be a part of making this work.”

Rabbi Mosbacher, who will remain in the community while he works on the campaign, stresses that “this is not a sabbatical.

“I’m not leaving the congregation. I’m staying and sharing the responsibility of ensuring the success of the shul.”

The assistant rabbi, Daniel Kirzane, officially took up his duties on July 1. The congregation, which has had a series of rabbinic interns for 10 hours a week, “has already begun to ramp up” its use of additional staff.

Rabbi Mosbacher said he will try to prepare faith leaders to meet with mayors and police chiefs in their communities.

Several weeks ago, he was invited to speak in Atlanta and to join faith leaders there in meeting with the city’s mayor. This week he is traveling to Los Angeles to enlist local religious leaders in the campaign.

“So far, we’ve got 30 jurisdictions signing on to campaign,” he said. “We’re trying to get it to 50 by the end of summer.” The New Jersey towns include Jersey City, Oakland, River Vale, Mahwah, Bloomfield Livingston, Montclair, and West Orange.

Rabbi Mosbacher will try to balance the congregation’s needs with those of his new position. “I’ll be at every bar mitzvah and major holiday [service],” he said, pointing out that much of the Metro IAF work can be done Monday through Friday.

Also to be balanced are the needs of his family, though, fortunately, he said, “my wife and two boys, ages 16 and 11, understand what I’m doing.” Calling his sons “budding activists, very engaged and supportive,” he said “they understand as much as anyone how their grandfather died.”

He noted that “this campaign is not about gun control.

“We’re not trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. It’s not about adding laws but [rather] keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. It’s gun violence prevention.”

“We’re going at it from a pretty different angle,” he said, pointing out that the approach is getting “a good reception from people. It’s a different take. Hopefully we can go across lines. I met with the mayor of Atlanta, and he was receptive. His police officers are not excited about having to face guns.”

Rabbi Mosbacher said anyone who wishes to become involved in the campaign should email him at rabbimosbacher@yahoo.com.

“We can do this in a really meaningful way on the local level, meeting the mayor and police chief and inviting them to use their purchasing power,” he said. “We have the ability to make an impact.”

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