Like so many Americans, the deaths of 20 small children in Newtown, CT woke me up to the intolerable scourge of gun violence in our country. As a rabbi, an American, and a mother, the death of so many children in what should be an absolutely safe place – their school – was unbearable. I could easily picture my own precious children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Truly, those children belonged to all of us. The state of our union is bereaved, shocked, and horrified by the problem of gun violence.
I soon learned even more disturbing facts. As tragic as were the deaths at Newtown, Oak Creek, Aurora, Tucson, and Columbine, I learned that for my fellow clergy persons who lead congregations in large cities across the land, the tragedy of Newtown can happen literally any day. In America’s urban areas, clergy persons like myself bury children they had named, loved and educated, multiple times a year. Parents grieve their children – sometimes multiple children - gunned down in their teenage years or younger. Young people have attended two, three, five, or ten funerals of their friends and classmates. 30,000 Americans – half of them young people – die of gun violence in America every year. The state of our union is unconscionably violent.
My religious tradition - - as do many others – rightly names the protection of innocent lives as the very highest of moral values. What is wrong with our nation, that we allow the epidemic of gun violence to proceed unabated? How can the celebrated good heart of America abide the deaths of tens of thousands, so many of them children, on the streets of our nation’s cities every year? How can even the complexities of Second Amendment interpretation obstruct the enactment of common sense, life-saving gun violence prevention measures? The state of our union is tragically confused.
Jewish tradition and Islamic tradition both teach that one who saves a single life – it is equivalent to saving an entire world, and one who destroys a single life – it is like destroying the entire world. This means that even if we cannot prevent every death, we must prevent those that we can. While we must respect Americans’ 2nd Amendment rights, we cannot continue to abide the hemorrhaging of young lives throughout our country. The state of our union must be better than this. The state of our union must provide safety for all the children of America.
I gladly accepted a colleague’s invitation to attend a multi-faith meeting on gun violence, gathering clergy-activists from around the country in Washington, D.C. But I had no idea of how transformative the experience would be. Within minutes of sitting down at the table, I knew that I would leave this meeting changed.
These were not the usual suspects, at least in my experience. This was a group of approximately 80 clergy, the great majority of them African-American parish clergy from large American urban areas: Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Sacramento, Cleveland, and New Orleans, drawn together by the Lifelines for Healing Program of the PICO Network (“People Improving Communities through Organizing,” a faith-based organizing initiative in 150 American cities). Whites were a conspicuous minority - 9 rabbis, a handful of white Protestant ministers, and one Catholic sister.
Early in the first day of the program, we were asked to write a personal story of how gun violence had touched our lives. I had become involved in gun violence work because of the Newtown shootings, but the question invited me to try to remember other attacks that had touched me deeply.
I thought of the attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, with its riveting photographic image of a long line of small children being led across the street to safety, tiny hands clasped in terror. I thought of the spate of suicides among students at the high school my daughter attended, and of the recent murder of Reuven Rahamim at his workplace in Minneapolis. Not coincidentally, in these incidents, the victims were Jews, or schoolmates of my daughter’s.
But in the silence, as people in the room put their thoughts on paper, I knew that the African-American clergy at my table had a radically different experience of the exercise than I did. The man to my right shrugged his shoulders in frustration, muttering, “One story? How could I possibly choose one story?”
As the days of the meeting unfolded, this place became my own story of gun violence. Sharing meals and conversation, tears, laughter and prayer with my African-American colleagues, I began to absorb their everyday experience of gun violence. I heard again and again that these attacks were regular occurrences in their ministry. Burying a young adult whose birth he had witnessed, over whose baptism she had officiated. Learning that a young man had been shot dead as he tried to reach the church for safety. Grieving over families who had lost two, three, even four children to gun violence. Resolving to risk their own lives, walking gang-dominated streets late at night to communicate their concern and solidarity with the families of their community.
I thought we had come to talk about Newtown, and the tragic opportunity it presented to promote sensible gun violence prevention measures in our country. My colleagues grieved the horror of Newtown as I did. But for them and their communities, Newtown happens every week, if not every day.
My head ached and I felt physically ill as we learned more about the problem of urban gun violence. 30,000 Americans killed in domestic violence each year, half of them young people. For perspective, 12,000-13,000 people die in terrorist activists all over the world each year. Approximately 60,000 people have died since the violence began in Syria, and most of the world considers that a massacre. My mind struggled to absorb the basic facts: more than 80 people (half of them young people) die every day of gun violence in the United States.
Horror and pain turned to confusion and shame. How could I not have known or understood the breadth and depth of the problem of urban violence, an epidemic by any standard? Surely, I had been dimly aware of the problem, but for a combination of reasons – distance (not in my part of town), overwhelm, and denial, among them – I had not attended to this problem. Not my issue.
Newtown woke me up. As a parent, the death of 20 small children broke open my heart and mind, so that I had no choice but to become engaged with the issue. But like the other horrific mass shootings in recent memory (Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek), the setting was not the inner city, and the victims were white. Coincidence? Or have I, like so much of white America, conveniently placed my attention elsewhere while blood ran in the streets of our cities?
I surely learned more from my African-American colleagues than they did from me at this week’s conference. As a rabbi, a Jew, an American, and a human being, I can no longer be indifferent. I join my colleagues of the Lifelines to Healing Campaign in the following commitments:
“We share in the outrage growing from every corner of our nation that we have abandoned our young people to the clutches of violence fueled by greed, fear and our despair. We bear witness to the deep pain of our nation’s people, whose loved ones are dying needlessly in our communities across the land, that our God commands we speak out about the sanctity of all life and affirm that all have the right to live in peace and safety. . . .
We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland. We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation. We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living."
Dear Mrs. Obama,
I have admired you from afar since your husband emerged on the national stage. Now, in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, I must challenge you to action.
Along with citizens--especially parents--throughout our nation and beyond, I am anguished at the death of the beautiful, innocent children of Sandy Hook School. I was deeply heartened by the sight of the President, a man of such dignity and reserve, moved to tears in contemplating the unspeakable tragedy we have witnessed.
Your husband was precisely right that the first days after the murders belong to the mourners, and must be filled with prayer and acts of love and kindness. But before long we all need to move into action. Many people will urge the President to fulfill his promise to undertake "meaningful action" toward "commonsense" gun control.
I am writing because I see a key role for you to play. The President and his allies will need to demonstrate a groundswell of support from the American people. We need a grassroots national campaign on a massive scale. I have begun to work in my own circle of influence, as a rabbi, among Jewish community leaders. We will need a broad multi-faith coalition of religious leaders supporting life-affirming gun control policies for our country. But we will also need organizations of parents, of grandparents, of mental health professionals, of educators, of health care professionals, of police officers, of veterans, and many others, to raise their voices to stop the carnage.
For far too long the loudest voices on this subject belonged to those who oppose sensible gun control. Such people are Americans, just as you and I are, and we must respect their views. But we neglect our responsibilities as citizens when we fail to make our voices heard.
Why am I writing to you? Because this massive campaign needs a face - a compelling, galvanizing leader. You are the best known, best loved, and most respected mother in America. You are obviously a person of boundless personal and professional gifts, and you have devoted your first four years in the White House to issues related to children's health.
I challenge you to step up and make gun control your issue. Make this your signature campaign. Commit to using the tremendous social capital you command to convene the far-ranging coalition that is needed to support your husband and Congressional leaders in doing the needed policy work.
Mrs. Obama, we need your leadership. Will you help?
Praying for comfort for all the bereaved families,
and wishing you strength, courage and determination for this role,
Rabbi Amy Eilberg
St. Paul, MN
(formerly posted at Huffington Post)
I am heartsick over the news that Israeli and Hamas forces are once again hurling rockets at one another. Once again, in what feels like a nightmarish repeat of the war in Gaza four years ago, there are accusations and counter-accusations. People on both sides are dying, facing injury and unbearable loss, and living in unimaginable fear of the next attack. And as usual at times like this, my inbox is full of people screaming at one other.
I want to understand how this escalation happened. I know that hundreds of rockets were launched into southern Israel over the past weeks, and that no country can be asked to tolerate that terrifying reality being inflicted on its citizens without response. I know that in the past few days some Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian negotiators were working on a plan to de-escalate the hostilities. And now, bombs are flying in both directions. People have died on both sides of the border, including children.
At the same time, my inbox is filled with violence of a different kind. Some Jewish leaders call to lovers of Israel to grieve and pray for those affected, but only on our side of the border. Some in the pro-Palestinian camp have dusted off their familiar accusations of Israeli aggression, feigning ignorance of Hamas rocket fire. Thus, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli voices are insisting that we suppress the natural response of the heart, to grieve death and loss among all members of the human family. We are being asked to cheer only for “our team,” essentially ignoring the reality that those on “the other side” are just as human, their blood just as red (to use a Talmudic metaphor) as our own.
As a religious leader and a person of faith, my heart yearns for quiet prayer. I want to pray for everyone in harm’s way, both in southern Israel and in Gaza, praying that the parties will soon turn away from the insanity of trying to defeat violence with violence or to defeat hate with hate. I want to pray for all of us who listen and watch from across the world who are also victims of secondary trauma as we suffer from far away, knowing that places and people we love are again drenched with blood and strewn with military debris.
What would happen, I wonder, if all of us who care passionately for that tiny sliver of land in the Middle East would join in a few moments of quiet prayer? What if we agreed to a ceasefire – of military, rhetorical, and electronic weaponry? If we could stop shooting missiles and words at each other for an hour or for a day, might the divine voice of peace somehow break through?
I admit it. I shop at Kowalski’s and Lunds and, though I buy things that are on sale whenever I can, if I really want something at the grocery store, I buy it. That includes tons of fruits and vegetables and lots of healthy, whole-grain foods, despite their higher price.
Last year, following the lead of a coalition of national Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations, I “took the Food Stamp Challenge.” As an educational experiment, I bought just $31.50 worth of groceries (the national average benefit given to recipients of SNAP – Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly called “food stamps”) and pledged to eat just that for a full week.
I failed to live up to my pledge. I ran out of food on the fifth day and capitulated. I am a person of privilege. I had money in my checking account that allowed me to go back to the grocery store and buy all the healthy foods I love.
But I learned a great deal. I was reminded yet again how incredibly fortunate I am to have the resources I need to live a comfortable life, and then some. I learned that I have no idea what it would be like to live in poverty, to worry all week about whether I’d have enough money to feed my children, much less buy the healthy foods I prefer. I gained a tiny glimpse of the experience of food insecurity, that afflicts millions (yes, millions) of Americans of all ages, races, religions, and educational backgrounds.
This year, many local Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious and community leaders will be taking the challenge, to deepen their own understanding of the issue of hunger and to galvanize support for anti-hunger efforts in Minnesota.
Sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas and co-sponsored by 15 area religious organizations, clergy and community members will gather on Sunday, November 11th from 2-4 PM. Beginning at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 2730 East 31st St., in Minneapolis, we will head to a nearby Cub Foods and each buy $31.50 worth of groceries. Some of us will have promised to live on that small stash of groceries for the entire week.
On Sunday, November 18th, a small group of us will prepare and serve lunch to homeless families at The Family Place in St. Paul. From 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., participants will gather next door at First Baptist Church, 499 North Wacouta St., to hear from the pledge-takers what it was like to live on a $31.50 food budget. Most importantly, we will learn from experts about local efforts to combat hunger in Minnesota.
Truly, none of us should sleep comfortably at night when so many in our own community are hungry. Join us as we learn about the experience of hunger and how to engage in meaningful efforts to end hunger in Minnesota. More details on the program are available at http://www.stthomas.edu/jpc/files/United_Against_Hunge.pdf.