These dead shall not have died in vain
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These dead shall not have died in vain

Local interfaith groups work to try to contain gun violence

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From left, Rebecca Miller, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Louis Lever, and Bari Hopkins face the camera, and from left, Louis Milgrom, Naomi Gamorra, and Lisa Summers watch them at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

The question of gun violence manages to be both divisive and unifying. Although many gun owners, including many Jews, bristle reflexively when the subject is broached, it also draws many unexpected groups together.

Joel Mosbacher, rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Mahwah, convened a meeting of local clergy in January. It was meant to be the first of a series of meetings, and gave participants the chance to hash out ideas and come to an action plan about which they all could agree. True to his word, on Sunday he held the next meeting – this one was for local activists, both clergy and lay, to set strategy.

At the same time, local activists, organized primarily by the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and including a large number of Jews, have been holding a vigil every Sunday afternoon at Chestnut Street Plaza on Cedar Lane in Teaneck.

Although these two groups developed separately in response to the same stimulus – the murders in Newtown, Connecticut – they have now joined forces.

The vigil’s goal “is asking people to go to their town councils and their mayors to join Mayor Bloomberg’s group,” – New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has founded a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns – “and for town councils to pass resolutions to support Obama’s campaign to reduce gun violence,” Steven Tencer said. Tencer, who lives in Teaneck, supports the group actively and has been at most of its vigils. “So far we’ve been successful in New Milford and Fair Lawn.” Teaneck’s town council voted to pass the legislation on Tuesday.

When they first began, the vigils drew about 80 people, Tencer said; now, weeks later, after the first shock has worn off, still about 30 to 40 come.

Each week, another clergy member organizes the vigil. Two Sundays ago, that task fell to Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck. Last Sunday, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom, also in Teaneck, took charge.

“It’s a time for the community to come together and express their feelings about the need to curb gun violence, and also to check in, on a practical level, to find out what’s going on,” Pitkowsky said.

Each leader can shape the vigil when it is his or her turn, he said. Last week, he read a few lines from the Declaration of Independence and the last section of the Gettysburg Address. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” he began, reading Abraham Lincoln’s profoundly moving words, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain….”

We cannot say that everyone who was shot dead was a hero, Pitkowsky said, and in fact it is a misuse of that word to use it in that way, but “I hope that we can learn from their deaths, grieve them, and hopefully make the world a better place.”

Mosbacher said that “there were 13 communities of faith” at the meeting he held in Mahwah, “including Jews, Christians, and Sikhs. The NAACP” – the civil right organization whose initials spell out the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – “was there. There were about 125 people from various communities. We got together to strategize about how to bring about sensible gun violence prevention legislation.”

The goal now, he said, “is to meet with all of the New Jersey congressional delegation. We want to work with people across the state.”

The group is not trying to take away people’s guns, he stressed. “Some people feel they’d like to take a more aggressive view, but our sense is that we want to try for things that we actually can win, such as background checks, limits on ammunition clips, and a ban on assault weapons.

“We’ve been explicit and clear in every forum, including this last one, that it’s not about taking guns away from responsible gun owners,” Mosbacher continued. “It is about trying to ensure people’s safety.”

Joy Kurland, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, was at the Mahwah meeting. Although the JCRC has not yet had a chance to vote on the issue at a board meeting, “certainly the rabbis and other people have been involved, so we are involved,” she said.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the JCRC’s umbrella organization, is holding its annual plenum in Washington, D.C., March 9 to March 12, and “a resolution not just on gun violence but also mass violence, which encompasses the gun issue as well as the whole mental health issue,” will be on the agenda there, she said.

Another participant at the Mahwah meeting was the Reverend Steve Huston, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ramsey.

“I got involved in the meeting initially because Rabbi Mosbacher invited me, and after Newtown I felt it was time I needed to stop being in the shadows and come out in front and speak out,” he said. “We were coming back from a family Christmas dinner, got off the highway to avoid traffic, and ended up driving through Newtown. The heaviness of driving through that town was so palpable, I thought, ‘I need to do something, I just don’t know what it is.'” Then he got the call from Mosbacher.

Huston is from Oklahoma. “I grew up in a hunting family,” he said. “When I was not old enough to hunt, I was the hunting dog; my dad would shoot the birds” – generally doves – “and I would run out to the field and grab them. When I was old enough, my father would pick me up after school, the shotguns would be in the back of the car, and we’d go out to the field and shoot, and then come home and clean them up and cook them for dinner.

“I enjoyed the time with my father. We’d hunt ducks and geese, and a lot of it was the long drives with my father. That was part of our relationship, and it was wonderful to have that opportunity.

“I also grew up in scouting. Part of what we did was skeet shooting and target shooting and learning gun safety. A member of our church was our shooting instructor. It was a very normal part of growing up.

“It wasn’t until I got married that I realized that other people didn’t grow up that way.”

Huston’s wife is from New York, and “we made the decision that when we had children” – they have two – “we wouldn’t have guns in our house.

“I remember being 8 or 9 years old, at a friend’s house, getting hold of his father’s pistol. I realized that I had to not do anything with it, but I don’t want it to be part of my children’s growing up.

“We don’t want to have accidents, and those kinds of accidents happen all the time.”

He is not antigun, Huston said. “I don’t necessarily believe that arming everyone is the solution, and I don’t believe that taking everyone’s gun away is the solution, either.

“Part of the reason for my entering this conversation is to help lead a discussion about finding some place where we can all agree to move forward.

“In many ways, our police forces have become paramilitary forces, because the arsenals that they are facing on the street are increasing. They look more like military than like police. At some point, we have to stop and figure out how to move in a different direction.

“I don’t know what that direction is, but I know that we have to do something.”

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