Not standing idly by

Not standing idly by

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, and serves as one of the national co-chairs of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign to reduce gun violence.

It should be enough to be in the right, to have the moral and religious high ground.

That often isn’t enough, however, if what you want is real, fundamental change. As legendary community organizer Ernie Cortes teaches, there is no nice way to get change. Real change happens only when enough tension is created to force the change.

Don’t take my word for it – think about it. Make a list of all the societal changes that have taken place purely because of a good sermon from a charismatic preacher. I bet it’s a really short list. The sermon might have moved people to action, but the change only came once the action itself was powerful enough to create enough tension to help the people with the power to make the change see it in their self-interest to say “yes.”

The moral argument alone didn’t work for our people in Egypt. Never were more moving or resounding words uttered by a prophet than those of Moses: “Let my people go.” And yet it took 10 plagues and the decision of the Israelites to participate in their own liberation before we actually went free. As we soon will say at our seders – Dayenu. It should have been enough. The argument itself should have sufficed. “Pharaoh: 400 years of slavery is enough. Let my people go.” But even Moshe Rabbeinu couldn’t muster the power to liberate us with moral suasion alone.

On the other hand, the power of faith, when combined with the power of faithful people, gives us the ability to make real and sustained change. It always has, and it can again. Think again of the list of fundamental changes we’ve seen in the last 100 years: women’s suffrage; worker’s rights, the civil rights movement, and more only took place because of tension created by powerful people.

Never have powerful people been more needed than on the issue of gun violence in America. The scourge has reached epic proportions. If 30,000 Americans were dying in a war each year, our streets would be filled by protests, and our religious convictions would move us to action. And yet, it seems, we have grown so inured to gun violence that even the horrifying murders of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut, more than a year ago haven’t driven our nation to action. If the moral outrage we felt after that tragic day didn’t move us to change course on gun violence, what greater affirmation can there be that moral arguments aren’t in themselves sufficient?

My own father was gunned down 15 years ago. Some 400,000 Americans have died by gun since then – the overwhelming majority of them in murders that didn’t make the evening news or break into your regularly scheduled program.

Surely the cause – reducing gun violence – is the right cause. This is true after each massacre in an elementary school, movie theater, or supermarket. And yet, sadly, shockingly, in each case, being right isn’t enough to compel change.

Despite the work that so many organizations did to bring gun sanity to our legislators, lawmakers actively decided to violate a foundational principle of the Torah. Our government decided to stand idly by as our neighbors continue to bleed – to stand by as the equivalent of a Newtown’s worth of Americans continue to be gunned down every day.

Many organizations continue to push Congress and the administration to play their part in reducing gun violence by passing a universal background check law that would close the gun show loophole that allows thousand of guns to be sold each year without those vital checks. I applaud these efforts.

But our congregation has joined people of faith across New Jersey and across the country in taking a different approach. Metro IAF, an organization of synagogues, churches, and mosques in 10 states across the country, began to ask an essential question. We began to ask ourselves: “Who else has the power to affect change on the issue of gun violence?”

While there is no one solution to this multifaceted challenge, we believe that gun manufacturers also could do meaningful things to address this scourge. They could invest in research and development for safer gun technology, which would help reduce accidental deaths and keep people from being able to use guns that don’t belong to them to do harm. And they could help reduce gun trafficking by refusing to sell their products through the 1 percent of dealers who sell a high percentage of the guns used in crimes in America. They could work as collaboratively with the ATF and law enforcement as they do with organizations that seek to undermine every sensible gun law in the United States. And they could do all of this without there needing to be a single new law passed by a Congress that seems determined to stand idly by on a whole host of vital issues our nation faces.

Metro IAF knows that its not enough to be right on this issue. We have to muster the power necessary to get gun manufacturers to take these sensible steps – none of which violate the Second Amendment, and none of which will take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.

In order to gather that power, we have approached mayors and police chiefs in cities across the country. With our taxpayer dollars, our police and military buy 40 percent of the guns sold in America. We are asking these municipalities, and the Obama administration as well, to use their purchasing power to seek out manufacturers who will work collaboratively to reduce gun violence. As of this writing, 18 cities across America have resolved to join us in this effort to use the power of the mighty dollar to encourage better customer service from the manufacturers of the guns our police purchase. Mayors, police chiefs, county sheriffs, and governors in cities and states small and large – cities like Mahwah, Jersey City, Paterson, Hoboken, and Newark in New Jersey, as well as in Rockland and Westchester counties in New York and cities in North Carolina, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, the State of Illinois. Just this past week, New York City has come onto the list. All have joined us in issuing a Request for Information addressed to gun manufacturers. These cities are saying: Next time we buy weapons, we’ll be looking not just for technically excellent weapons, but also for companies that take their corporate responsibility seriously.

And gun manufacturers already have begun to react – in the media, on the Internet, and even at Europe’s largest police show last week, where I joined a group of clergy in engaging with these companies.

We don’t need to add a verse to Dayenu. We don’t need to say, “If only we had the power to reduce gun violence, Dayenu.” We do have the power. This campaign, called “Do Not Stand Idly By,” is gaining momentum, and we need more partners. For more information, go to

As people of faith, we can do more than bury the dead and lament the state of things. We can do more than wait on Congress to act.

We can act powerfully now. Let us begin.