RAC Social Action Blog
It can sometimes be tough to put a human face on many of the issues we work on here at the RAC. Sure, climate change is a pressing issue facing our planet. Yes, fighting school prayer is a crucial social justice topic with incredibly important implications. But who exactly is affected by our work? Which people, which families, are we fighting for when we lobby on Capitol Hill?
One population that often gets missed in the frenzied political discussions is children. In immigration reform specifically, we hear about the agricultural workers and the women and the adult married children and the LGBT spouses – all really significant demographics that we absolutely should be keeping in mind as we craft comprehensive legislation. But what about their children? Children of immigrants now comprise 25% of the U.S. child population. They make up a crucial sector of our future workforce, yet have little to no voice in the advocacy process.
In fact, children of immigrants often face some of the toughest obstacles. Between July 1, 2010 and September 31, 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a total of 204,810 removals for parents of U.S. citizen children. In 2011, at least 5,100 children were in foster care because of their parents’ detention or removal, and it is estimated that 15,000 more children will enter the child welfare system within five years if policies are not put in place to reverse this trend.
Yet immigration reform can’t only help children by protecting their parents – it must also address their needs more directly. It is essential that a comprehensive bill provides special accommodations for DREAMers – people who were brought to America as children, have grown up here, and have attended college or served in the military. It is essential that children remain eligible for legal status even if parents are denied, and that they are exempt from paying fees or penalties. It is essential that there are legal provisions for unaccompanied children or children who are in the foster care system. Luckily, the Senate immigration bill that’s been introduced in Congress already has these protections. But we must continue to let our Senators and representatives know what priorities are key for us as we continue the long legislative process.
The Jewish tradition teaches that if one destroys a life, it is as if one has destroyed a world, and if one saves a life, it is as if one has saved a world. These legislative issues – immigration reform, LGBT equality, women’s equality, economic justice – they’re not just issues. They’re not just faces. They’re not even just individual people. They are entire worlds, each of which is worth fighting for, protecting and saving in any and every way we can.
We’re still on a high from the whirlwind events during Consultation on Conscience and have more or less caught up on sleep. This week, we’ve begun getting back to our more usual work.
On Thursday, we sponsored a disability inclusion training at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD. We also continued our work with the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis efforts in Texas. RAC LA Sarah Krinsky and I joined a conference call with rabbis there who are preparing to lobby Senator John Cornyn on immigration reform. The Senate will begin marking up the bi-partisan Gang of Eight legislation next week, so if you haven’t yet sent your Senators an email about the bill, now is the time.
On Wednesday morning, our Development Associate Lisa Paquette organized a big group of RAC staff to volunteer at DC Central Kitchen. The Kitchen prepares 5000 meals each day, and our staff helped peel, slice, dice and wash. And as you can see in the photo, RAC staff really rocks the hairnets.
Tuesday we were joined by Beth Rodin, NFTY’s Director of Education and Special Projects, and this year’s NFTY Social Action Vice President, Joy Nemerson, who came to discuss strengthening the NFTY-RAC partnership. We spent a good amount of time planning for the annual June visit of the new regional Social Action VPs, who spend three days at the RAC before heading to Kutz Camp for teambuilding and training. We focused our conversation on better linking how our social action efforts are inextricably intertwined with our identity as Reform Jews.
Monday afternoon, we hosted Imam Ilyasi of the All India Imam Organization, the world’s largest imam organization, representing half a million religious leaders and over two hundred million Muslims living in India. Imam Ilyasi has distinguished himself as a leader who powerfully addresses issues of religious extremism and global terrorism and frequently reaches out across religious lines. In particular, he has done considerable work bringing together Muslim and Jewish leaders in the Middle East and around the world, and has been recognized internationally for his achievements in peace building and interreligious affairs. The Israeli Embassy asked for our help introducing him to DC’s Jewish community leaders and we were happy to be part of the visit.
Last Sunday, RAC LA Raechel Banks visited congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, NJ to run programming that built on the L’Taken programs the students participated in earlier in the year.
I hope you had a fun and relaxing weekend!
For all of the sci-fi-loving Jews out there, happy Star Wars Day! It may seem odd that a Jewish blog would produce a post for this secular (ok, cult) holiday, but the reality is that the names, story lines and even vocabulary of the “Star Wars” universe have important connections to Judaism and to its teachings. Recall C3PO’s dissatisfaction as he proclaims, “We seem to be made to suffer. That’s our lot in life.” Apparently this protocol droid fluent in over 6 million forms of communication is most comfortable conversing in Jewish guilt.
For those of you who have not taken a few hours to immerse yourself in the universe of Star Wars, let me give you a brief synopsis. The two trilogies follow Anakin Skywalker’s life from a young child to Jedi Knight and keeper of the peace to Sith Lord bent on Galactic domination. The heart of the story line is the struggle of good vs. evil. In Episodes I, II and III we witness the internal struggle between Anakin’s noble aspirations to be a keeper of the peace within the republic, a Jedi Knight, and his own desires and ambitions. The latter eventually wins out, and Anakin leads an army of storm troopers, loosely based on the storm troopers of Nazi Germany, on a tirade to replace the republic with a dictatorship. The culmination of this effort is the virtual annihilation of the Jedi Order. In Episodes IV, V and VI, a scrappy coalition of resistance fighters led by Anakin’s son, Luke, seek to overthrow the newly established empire and resurrect the republic. In the final chapter, Luke becomes the only surviving Jedi and is, presumably, the founder of a new Jedi Order.
The term “Jedi,” some have argued, is based on the German word “Jude” meaning Jew. The Jedi are portrayed as being somewhere between UN peacekeepers and monks dedicated to achieving a greater intellectual and spiritual understanding of the universe. In essence, Jedi Knights are the embodiment of Jewish philosophy; they study and work to achieve universal peace and prosperity and stand up to fight for the little guy. Indeed, as the Galactic Storm Troopers destroy the Jedi’s temple and massacre its residents, you can even see parallels to our people’s storied history as the quintessential victims of persecution.
Moreover, when the wise Jedi Master Yoda, a 900 year old Jedi with a bald head and a propensity to talk about the antics of youth and lament how old he feels welcomes a stranger, Luke Skywalker, into his home, he may not be serving matzah-ball soup, but it is not hard to imagine that he could. In fact Yoda’s name is close to the Hebrew root “yeda,” which translates to “knowing.” It is not hard to imagine him telling tails of days gone by around the Jedi Council table. Does that describe any Jewish grandfathers you know? If you need further proof, the name of the mentor of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, bares a striking resemblance to the Hebrew “k’nah vi,” which translates to “like a prophet.” Obi Wan undergoes a transformation into some kind of non-corporeal being gently exerting influence on events as they unfold. Sounds profit-esque to me.
As Star Wars Day falls on Shabbat this year, there are even more important themes to reflect on. In both our “real” world and in the Star Wars universe, the rise of evil is and was facilitated by the indignation and inaction of those who are not directly affected.
We should all strive to be like Yoda. We want to live to a ripe old age, accumulate knowledge, achieve great wisdom and stand up and fight evil and hatred when it stares us right in the face.
Shabbat Shalom and may the force be with you!
For some time I have intended to write an update about the growing support for marriage equality in Congress, across the country and around the world. As other issues have come up, I’ve been delayed in writing this post a number of times. But each time I’ve postponed writing this post it seems a new person, a new state, or a new country has moved closer toward supporting marriage equality. So, though I am loathe to jinx the amazing momentum marriage equality is experiencing right now, here is an update of where and among who marriage equality is starting to see these great gains.
Last month Ohio Senator Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican Senator to endorse marriage equality, citing his personal evolution on the issue after his son came out to him two years ago (Senator Portman just became the first Republican co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act as well). In the weeks that followed a number of Senators publically affirmed their support for marriage equality including a moving statement from Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois. As of now 54 U.S. Senators – two Republicans and all but three Democrats – have endorsed marriage equality.
Meanwhile support for marriage equality continues to gain speed at the state level. Colorado’s provision allowing for civil unions came into effect this week and the first married couples received their papers yesterday. A marriage equality bill passed the Illinois State Senate in February and the State House is poised to take up the issue in the coming weeks. And just yesterday Rhode Island became the 10th state to pass marriage equality bringing the total number of people who live in states with equal marriage to 50 million! (Notably, if the Supreme Court strikes down California’s Proposition 8, that number could nearly double).
Too often we focus our discussions of LGBT rights and marriage equality solely on the United States (though check out what Ambassador Susan Rice told the Consultation on Conscience about LGBT rights and the U.N.) , but over the past month great strides have been taken in support of marriage equality around the world. Three more countries – Uruguay, New Zealand and France – have legalized same sex marriage, and the United Kingdom still seems likely to pass marriage equality (despite a recent decision from the Church of England) in the coming months. If the U.K. does indeed pass marriage equality it would bring the total number of countries who have beaten the U.S. to providing full rights to marriage equality to fourteen.
How long must we wait until the United States can join the ranks of these countries? While full marriage equality nationwide may not be the most likely outcome of next month’s Supreme Court ruling, anything is possible. Even so the Supreme Court’s rulings in Windsor v. United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry could mean great leaps forward in the pursuit of LGBT rights in America.
Who knows what politician, what state, what country will be the next to come out for marriage equality – check back here at RACblog to see who comes out for equality next!
This blog originally appeared on the WRJ blog.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. This case has received national attention in large part due to the extremely personal issues being addressed by the court. In particular, this case attempts to grapple with the question “can one patent a part of the human body?”
The plaintiff in this case is Myriad Genetics, a company that, over the last several years, has developed breakthrough and potentially life-saving technology regarding cancer research. In particular, it discovered that there are certain genes known as “BCRA1” and “BCRA2” that, when isolated, can be used as predictors of breast cancer. Having invested large amounts of time and money in this research, Myriad wants to now patent their “invention” in order to receive the monetary benefits from any clinical test that could result from the scientific advancement.
The opposing argument is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and its peers believe that things occurring in nature, such as genes, cannot be patented, and worry about the precedent the Court could set by allowing a private company to stake a claim on a part of the human body. The ACLU is also arguing that, without the patent, other researchers can utilize the knowledge gleaned by Myriad to competitively drive further breakthroughs – and that a Myriad monopoly on this information could prevent others from doing future, potentially lifesaving research in an effort to protect their own profits.
Jewish tradition acknowledges the validity of both sides of the argument. Mutations in BCRA1 and BCRA2 that indicate potential for development of breast cancer occur much more frequently in Ashkenazi Jewish women. Therefore, as a community, we have a vested interest in further research on this topic – which might sway us to oppose Myriad’s monopoly over the scientific process. However, we also are grateful for and would support further iterations of Myriad’s investment in the research which led to this enormous breakthrough – research that would be markedly less incentivized if companies knew they could not reap the potential benefits of future patents (though opponents of this argument would attest that patents limit innovation by refusing to allow fair and open competition and research).
Jewish tradition as channeled through Reform Movement policy is equally divided. We support women’s autonomy over their own bodies, and believe that our bodies are gifts from God and not to be owned by other humans. On the other hand, we are inspired by Maimonides’ assertion that “God created drugs and compounds and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness and disease” (Maimonides Commentary on Mishnah Pesachim 4:9). A 1995 WRJ resolution urges “continued intense study and research on issues of women’s health” – a topic in which breast cancer research is surely positioned.
How do you think this issue should play out? Should the Supreme Court side with Myriad and allow future patents to continue to spur innovation and life-saving research? Or should the Supreme Court come down on the other side and forbid a private company from patenting naturally occurring elements of the human body and broader world?
Let us know how you think in the comments section on the WRJ blog! And stay tuned for news of the Justices’ decision which will be coming down in the coming months.
“When they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 26:44-5
We read a lot in Jewish tradition about war. Historical accounts of the wars we fought, prescriptive guidelines on how to treat strangers and enemies, even details on how to deal with trees we encounter in enemy territories. In this week’s Torah portion, we hear about something else – we hear about how God will treat us when we are in foreign lands. After a series of fairly ominous verses about the horrors of what will happen to those who do not follow God’s commandments, our fears are assuaged with the promise: “when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them…but I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors” (Leviticus 26:44-45). God pledges to watch out for us as we venture into foreign territories and enemy lands.
If only our own country was so supportive of all of its soldiers risking their lives overseas. More than 400,000 women serve in the Armed Forces and receive their health insurance from the Department of Defense’s Military Health System. But the health insurance available to servicewomen prevents women in the military from using their own private funds to pay for abortion services in military facilities. This problem is compounded by the fact that victims of these crimes might be hesitant to disclose their circumstances to superiors, either because they fear for their reputation with their supervisors who may not be sensitive to their concerns, or even because of reported incidents of sexual assault within the military hierarchy itself.
Luckily, we have a legislative solution to this in the works in Congress. The MARCH Act (Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health of 2013 – H.R. 1389/S.777) would close this loophole and bring regulations for military women in line with federal standards. As long as women paid out of pocket, they would be able to get an abortion in a military medical facility rather than traveling outside the base to potentially dangerous or medically insufficient providers.
Part of our responsibility as Jews is to look out for one another – our tradition teaches that “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” So too must we as Americans, and indeed as citizens of the world, look out for one another, and protect those who risk their lives to protect us. If we are indeed made in the image of God, then let us channel that divine spirit and take action on behalf of our servicewomen.
Today marks the second anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden and as we consider this significant date it feels important to think about American approaches to fighting terrorism and the treatment of terrorist suspects. Despite the Administration’s continued assertion that torture produced no actionable intelligence in the search for Osama Bin Laden, that notion has persisted in the media and public consciousness. However, a recent report released by the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment – the most extensive investigation into U.S. policies of torture in the war on terror- has once again sought to close the debate on this matter.
The Task Force - whose bi-partisan membership included former Members of Congress, former military officers, attorneys and counterterrorism experts – conducted over two years of research and produced an over 500-page long report. The report addresses a number of critical issues from the American conduct in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the U.S. Military prison at Guantanamo Bay, to the external rendition and torture of suspected terrorists.
Through careful research and detailed analysis the report comes to three major conclusions. First, that “U.S. Forces, in many institutes, used interrogation techniques that constitute torture.” Second, that U.S. officials in the highest echelons of government knew about and failed to stop many of these acts of torture. Finally, and most importantly, “There is no firm evidence that widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant intelligence of value.”
The Reform Movement has consistently spoken out against the use of torture in American foreign policy, citing both our moral beliefs about the dignity of human life and our historical experience with torture and the abuse of state power. Because of this moral conviction, the Union for Reform Judaism was a founding member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, with whom we continue to work to end torture in U.S. facilities and around the world.
In response to the Task Force’s report, Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of NRCAT, released a statement saying, “The central finding is the unanimous, unequivocal agreement that what was done was in fact torture and violated our own laws, Constitution and treaties; that what happened was ‘unprecedented’; and that what happened requires a national response to acknowledge, condemn, repair, and prevent the future use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
If you are interested in being a part of that national response to U.S. sponsored torture consider participating in the Torture Awareness Month in June. NRCAT has put together a toolkit to help congregations and community groups organize for Torture Awareness Month and join the call for justice in U.S. detention policy. Contact Benny at the RAC if you need more information on how to participate.
Image courtesy of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. where I attended the Religious Action Center’s flagship policy conference, Consultation on Conscience. I spent four days listening to inspiring speakers, having meaningful discussions, and learning more than I ever thought possible. While reflecting on this incredible conference, I realized that there are three Hebrew phrases that can aid me in sharing my experiences: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue), L’dor Vador (From generation to generation), and im tirtzu, ein zo agada (If you will it, then it is no dream.)
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, justice you shall pursue
Prior to attending the Consultation on Conscience, I knew that the Jewish community values the pursuit of justice. However, being surrounded by hundreds of motivated members of our movement helped me understand just how deeply rooted the idea of social justice is in our faith. I loved seeing how passionate everyone became when they were inspired by a particular speaker. Because there were so many fantastic speakers, we all became more and more inspired with each one. Sunday night, we began the Consultation with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She discussed her support for Israel and the Jewish community, as well as the idea behind the word Heneini, “here we are.” She explained how we are all gathered as one to answer the call of justice. On Monday, we heard from a variety of speakers. However, the most inspiring for me was Naomi Natale, the founder of One Million Bones. This project was started in order to raise awareness about genocide. Through Natale’s program, one million clay bones are being made and will be displayed on the National Mall to draw attention to the victims of genocides worldwide and give them the recognition that they deserve. Tuesday, we all went to the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill and had the opportunity to hear from Members of Congress. We heard from Representative Chris Van Hollen, Representative Joseph Kennedy III, and Representative Henry Waxman, just to name a few. After each member spoke, there was time for questions. During this time, I saw members of our community articulate their deep passion about specific issues in conversation with their representatives who are fighting for justice for all Americans each and every day.
As the only NFTY representative at Consultation, I was given the opportunity to attend the Commission on Social Action meetings. The Commission on Social Action consists of members from throughout North America who help decide the official position that the URJ and the Central Conference of American Rabbis take on controversial issues. While at these meetings, I was able to chat with some of the members. While talking to them, I realized that these are some of the most passionate, dedicated people that I have ever met. They are all so dedicated to the Reform Movement and to the pursuit of justice in their communities and throughout the world. During these meetings, it was decided that there are two resolutions that may be appearing at Biennial in December. The first is a resolution to form a position on hydrofracturing (fracking) and the second is regarding employers providing paid sick leave for their employees. Both resolutions have values that are rooted in the Jewish faith and I am excited to see if they pass at Biennial!
The Religious Action Center itself completely embodies the idea of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. While hearing the RAC staff give updates, I was reminded of the amount of work they do each day to pursue justice. Throughout the year they advocate for 70+ issues by speaking with staff members on Capitol Hill, engaging congregations in their work, and mobilizing Jews all over North America. They recently raised $800,000 dollars for Hurricane Sandy relief. In addition, they have been working on expanding their involvement in campaigns for Nothing but Nets (which donates mosquito nets to African villages), Gift of Life (which saves lives by registering Jews for the universal bone marrow registry), and organizing interfaith “call-in days” to Members of Congress advocating for gun violence prevention legislation. These endeavors are just a few examples of the inspiring work the RAC does to pursue justice.
L’dor Vador: From Generation to Generation
When I found out I would be attending Consultation on Conscience, I anticipated that the most powerful, inspirational moments would come from listening to the speakers. While I did learn a great deal from the speakers, I also gained so much from the interactions I had with the adults in attendance. Being the only student at the conference gave me the opportunity to meet and have conversations with many interesting adults. I heard the most amazing stories! I heard first-hand about Rabbi Israel Dresner’s important work during the Civil Rights Movement, Judge David Davidson’s dedication to the Religious Action Center and the Commission on Social Action, and Ms. Judith Hertz’s involvement in the WRJ and URJ, just to name a few. Before hearing their stories, I knew very little about the structure and inner workings of the URJ. However, through these conversations, they all passed down a piece of their knowledge to me, the next generation. Also, I developed a much greater sense of what being a Reform Jew means. To me, personally, it means being dedicated to the movement, keeping faith, holding my head high, and most importantly, having a belief in justice.
In NFTY, we love the saying “Generational Leadership.” Having served as the Social Action Vice President at the local and regional levels for three years, my position has come to mean a lot to me. I recently passed down my Social Action leadership position as I prepare for the next stage in my life. As the youngest person in attendance at the Consultation on Conscience, I got a little taste of generational leadership on the larger URJ stage. During a meeting on fracking, everyone introduced themselves and stated whether they had ever been a committee chairperson. I would estimate that 1/3 of the people had served in a leadership role. I love seeing that the leadership positions have been passed between people. Because of this, many people have been able to share their passion and have the opportunity to impact the reform movement and the world. I can only hope that one day, I will be part of that line of leaders.
Im tirtzu, ein zo agada: If you will it, then it is no dream.
If there is one thing from this experience that I want to walk away with, it is that anything is possible. The work done by the Religious Action Center, the Commission on Social Action, and everyone in attendance at the Consultation on Conscience is a perfect example of people “willing change” and making it happen. Whether it is calling a member of congress, sending a malaria net to a village in Africa, or lending a hand to someone in financial trouble, the Reform Movement is perpetually willing change to happen in the world. From what I experienced, I now strongly believe in the power of our movement. I know that if we work together to will that change, justice will no longer be a dream.
Jackie Heymann is the NFTY Missouri Valley Social Action Vice President.
Are you on your synagogue’s social action committee?
Do you want to:
- Learn more about the Reform Movement’s newest partnerships, campaigns and initiatives?
- Discover new ways to bring exciting social action programs to your congregation?
- Get valuable skills training?
Participate in our Social Action Committee Webinar
Tuesday May 7
3:00-4:00 PM ET
For more information email Isaac Nuell (email@example.com).
Welcome the stranger, care for the sick, just don’t do both! No, the last part is not part of Jewish tradition, but it is part of the new immigration reform proposal. While the new Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill includes a number of laudable improvements like creating a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and other undocumented immigrants, it also excludes them from social services like healthcare.
While such exclusions may cater to the more conservative Members of Congress whose support will be required for the bill to pass, it leaves a large moral hole in the legislation and creates a number of practical problems for implementation. Excluding people on the path to citizenship from healthcare programs is not a solution; people are not suddenly going to hold off getting sick until they have full citizenship. They will need healthcare, they will still use resources in their communities and they will recreate a microcosm of the very problems with indigent care that have plagued the healthcare system and required the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The slightly less negative news is that while newly documented immigrants would be exempt from the benefits of healthcare reform they would also be exempt from the personal mandate. So at least they won’t be fighting in a rigged game.
Yes, this bill would be a pivot in the right direction (and you should make sure to urge your Members of Congress to support it!), but it is tough to declare complete victory when so many basic human issues are left out of the proposal. Overall, the bill would create a more humane immigration system even if it is not perfect.
Image Courtesy of ADREAMACT.com.
This week the RAC hosted Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chief Imam of the All India Imam Organization. The All India Imam Organization is the largest imam organization in the world, representing half a million religious leaders and over two hundred million Muslims living in India. Imam Ilyasi has distinguished himself as a leader who powerfully addresses issues of religious extremism and global terrorism and frequently reaches out across religious lines. In particular, he has done considerable work bringing together Muslim and Jewish leaders in the Middle East and around the world and has been recognized internationally for his achievements in peace building and interreligious affairs.
Imam Ilyasi shared his own story of his personal experience with Jewish-Muslim relations. For his whole life, he did not understand Judaism, Israel or Jewish heritage. His only source of knowledge came from biased newspapers, influenced by radicals from the Middle East. In 2007, however, he was invited by President Shimon Peres to visit Israel. Although he hesitated to accept the invitation and knew he would face protest from his community, the visit was transformative and encouraged him to take it upon himself to spread understanding of Judaism among Indian Muslims. He arranged for a rabbi to visit a madrasa, which was heartily welcomed and soon demanded by other madrasas around the country. Imam Ilyasi is now undertaking a project to create an exchange between Jewish and Muslim religious seminaries and to foster understanding and dialogue between the communities. Even in the face of violent protests and burning effigies, Imam Ilyasi has continued with his pursuit, confident in his way forward and the path to peace.
In the six months since Superstorm Sandy devastated coastal communities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the Reform Jewish community has rallied to support the rebuilding effort, our synagogues, and the millions of people who were – and continue to be – impacted by the storm.
Although much of the Reform Movement’s work has been behind the scenes – raising and allocating funds, coordinating volunteers, and keeping abreast of the rebuilding efforts two of our synagogues are undertaking – our members have risen to the occasion. Countless volunteer hours have been applied to the cause, entire trailers of donated goods have been sent by our synagogues to some of the hardest-hit communities, and the URJ’s Disaster Relief Fund, which opened just after the storm passed, raised nearly $1 million for relief efforts.
Here’s are 10 ways the Reform Movement has aided in relief efforts during the last six months:
- To date, we’ve allocated $142,000 to Reform congregations affected by the storm. Among the allocation are $90,000 to West End Temple in Neponsit, NY; $20,000 to Temple Sinai in Massapequa, NY; $7,500 to North Shore Synagogue in Syosset, NY, to provide meals to displaced families; $5,000 to Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY, to help families replace lost Judaica; and the remaining $19,500 to congregations with families who were displaced or whose homes were severely damaged.
- We provided special assistance to West End Temple in Neponsit, NY. This congregation in the Far Rockaways section of New York suffered significant damage from Hurricane Sandy. The URJ collected funds on behalf of West End Temple until their electricity was restored and their online donation system functional. In addition to our monetary donation to the congregation, the Men of Reform Judaism’s Reform on Campus grantees donated $500 in the form of Target gift cards to West End Temple.
- We established a Youth Scholarship Fund to help affected young people remain connected with the Jewish community. At a time when their belongings and homes may be damaged or lost, this fund removes financial barriers that could keep displaced youth from engaging with their faith community when they need it most. The Women of Reform Judaism contributed $10,000 to this fund.
- The Central Conference of American Rabbis sent more than 400 prayer books to storm-ravaged synagogues. New copies of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement prayer book, went to West End Temple, as well as to Temple Sinai in Massapequa, which also suffered severe storm damage.
- We supported Congregation Beth Elohim’s efforts to help their neighbors. The Brooklyn congregation, which provided meals and organized volunteers after the storm, served as a hub for a diverse group of people from varying religious, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds to help those most in need. Our $50,000 allocation to them supported these efforts and more.
- We sent $50,000 to New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford a private attorney. NYLAG continue to help victims with FEMA applications, public benefits, housing issues, insurance and other immediate legal needs. The organization also trains lawyers unfamiliar with this kind of work to help their neighbors.
- We sent money and volunteers to NECHAMA, the Jewish Response to Disaster, to build additional response capacity. NECHAMA personnel arrived in New Jersey less than 18 hours after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, worked through the snowstorm that occurred the following week and deployed their entire staff to manage volunteers, assist individuals and organizations with clean-up and preparation for rebuilding. Our $50,000 grant is helping the organization increase human capital and their inventory of tools, equipment, supplies and vehicles on the ground.
- We provided grants to organizations doing on-the-ground rebuilding, allocating $60,000 to Friends of Rockaway, which hires unemployed Queens residents to properly gut homes destroyed by the storm. Michael Sinensky, co-founder of Friends of the Rockaways, said of the group’s work, “[We] are one of the only local groups in Rockaway not only doing relief, but rebuilding.” We also sent $25,000 to help rebuild theBroad Channel Athletic Club, a community center that provides extracurricular activities – including an after-school teen club and summer sports leagues – to New York communities.
- We’re helping local groups focus on long-term rebuilding. We sent $25,000 each to the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group and the Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group, located in storm-ravaged New Jersey counties where Sandy had massive and widespread impact. As recently as March, more than 1,500 families and individuals in Monmouth County remained displaced, and another 1,000 inhabited homes unfit for living due to a lack of heat, hot water, or a growth of mold on the premises. These groups are working to coordinate services and resources to help address the long-term needs of residents.
- Reform congregations all over North America pitched in to help. Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, IL, sent 300 lbs. of toiletries to Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, NJ. Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan donated 2,500 cans of soup, hundreds of pounds of cleaning supplies, and more than $29,000 to aid those in need. Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, FL, sent warm clothing, water, food, and emergency supplies to hard-hit areas in Staten Island and New Jersey. Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore dispatched six trucks of food, clothing, personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, pet supplies, and more to affected areas. And the list goes on.
The responses seen across the Reform Jewish community are powerful. Hurricane Sandy brought about terrible destruction and stories of despair – but within the last six months have emerged stories of hope, partnership, and peoplehood. In a time of great need, the organized Reform Movement and congregations across North America came together to show that we are, indeed, a movement.
With last week’s speedy fix of the air traffic controllers’ sequester cuts, it’s a wonder people complain about gridlock in Washington! The bill, which allows the Department of Transportation to move money around the department to offset furloughs, passed by a landslide in the House, unanimously in the Senate and is expected to seamlessly work its way through the White House. While the fast passage of a needed alternative to at least a portion of sequestration is welcome, this bill sets a dangerous—and infeasible—precedent for future budget discussions.
- The “FAA Fix” doesn’t fix much in the long-term. The idea of sequestration came about in order to force Congress to seriously address long-term deficit problems. The cuts were supposed to be so unpalatable to all parties that Congress would be able to swallow some tough compromises in order to avoid the devastation of the sequester. The public, however, did not put a lot of pressure on Congress before sequestration took effect, rationalizing, “’It’s not going to be that bad, and if it does get bad, politicians will scramble to fix it.’ Congress proved the skeptics right by fixing the FAA when people squawked.” This “fix,” though, does nothing to address the root cause of sequestration itself, or even the larger goal of general deficit reduction.
- This solution is not applicable on the larger scale. The bill that Congress passed does not find new money or give additional money to the FAA. Instead, it allows the Department of Transportation the discretion to move money between programs within itself, from supporting infrastructure improvement (a long-term need that will now be cut) and moving that money to the needs of daily operations. This discretion from long-term to immediate, however, is not available to most other agencies and programs. It is much more difficult for other agencies to take money from one area without actually cutting current programs.
- Addressing only a high-profile part of sequestration leaves out other necessary programs that serve those with less political voice. Long delays at airports just happened to be the cuts that affected politicians. There are still billions of dollars of sequestration left unsolved, which are currently forcing social service programs around the country to slash services, harming beneficiaries. Great, the air traffic controllers are not on furlough, but Head Start students are already being kicked out of school, seniors are facing the prospect of being forced into nursing homes because of Meals on Wheels cuts and workers seeking jobs are facing large cuts in unemployment insurance.
Our Jewish values teach us to champion the orphan, the widow and the stranger. These three categories of people in biblical times represented those without a voice. We can translate this deeply-held value into modern-day language: speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Congress cannot continue to put Band-Aids over the negative effects of the sequester when people complain loud enough. Congress must realize that there are those in our country—indeed, those being most affected by the sequester—that do not have the political voice to advocate for themselves. We must be their champion.
Last week, Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) spoke to attendees at the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience about the urgent need to stop gun violence. Yesterday, Congressman Nadler took this important message back to his district by speaking at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. We are thankful for the important work of Congressman Nadler in advancing this important cause.
The Congressman’s full remarks are below:
Rep. Jerry Nadler
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
Preventing Gun Violence
April 29, 2013
Good evening, and thanks so much for inviting me to speak with you here tonight. Thank you, Rabbi Hirsch, for your great service to this community. And thank you all for joining us tonight as we discuss an issue that is of the utmost importance to our nation today: how do we do better as a society to prevent gun violence.
The utter horror of the murderous shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut remains in all of our minds and has rightly propelled us into a critical dialogue that we hope will produce real action after so many years. And the problem has been with us for many years. Much of the time, families and communities – especially in our inner cities – have fought on the front lines against gun violence without much attention from the rest of society. Now, with the alarming and increasing regularity of mass shootings – every couple of years it seems – like those in Newtown and Aurora, it should be clear to all of us that gun violence is our collective problem as a nation, and must be addressed in all of its forms.
According to a report from Slate, since the shootings in Newtown, there have already been more than 3,500 gun deaths across America. Other industrialized nations cannot fathom our level of gun violence. In one year, Germany had 158 homicides by firearm; Canada, 173; the UK, 41; and, Japan…11. The United States? More than 10,000. Even adjusting for population, we are still exponentially more prone to gun violence. No one can dispute that such violence is an epidemic, and it is one that we must confront head on.
As you all know, earlier this month, in a terrible and shameful display, the Senate voted against a series of amendments designed to address various areas of gun control. The Senate even voted down the bipartisan Toomey/Manchin compromise to expand background checks – a piece of legislation that already fell short of making background checks universal or of plugging all of the many loopholes exploited by criminals to get firearms. Even that modest compromise could not pass.
Wednesday’s votes were a truly outrageous display of Congress at its worst. The level of hypocrisy and propaganda was extraordinary. Part of it we can explain by pure political cowardice; or, put more charitably, by cut-and-dried political calculations in which Senators believed their votes would determine whether they would hold onto their seats in the coming elections.
But, of course, what we saw was the NRA, and other pro-gun organizations, flexing their muscles, and lying, and exploiting fears in order to gain leverage. This is a textbook example of self-serving interests using political pressure to betray the will of the majority, and it’s truly unconscionable – both for the interests bucking the will of the people, and for legislators succumbing to that pressure.
The fact is that most people agree that we should not allow felons and the mentally disturbed to buy guns. Nearly 90% of Americans support universal background checks, including most members of the NRA.
But, let’s be clear: this is not about hunters, who don’t need semi-automatic rifles with huge-capacity clips. This is not even about millennialists who imagine that their armed-to-the-teeth militias will be the only line of defense against an inevitable invasion by government forces – they are too small a minority, even if they are a particularly vocal one.
And it’s not even a question of strict interpretation of the 2ndAmendment. After all, in 2008, when the Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban, Justice Scalia wrote in the majority opinion that:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.
The 2nd Amendment does not confer a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.
Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
That is to say that, even the current Supreme Court would not back an absolutist view of the 2nd amendment.
No. The reality is that the recent lobbying blitz was not directed by the vast majority of NRA members or gun owners or 2nd Amendment absolutists. It was directed by gun manufacturers, whose only aim is to make profits selling guns, to hell with the consequences. The Senate voted to protect the profits of the firearm industry instead of the lives of the American public.
Well, where does all of this leave us now, as we are still stung by an ugly defeat, with the memory of Newtown and so much senseless violence fresh on our minds?
Call me naïve, but I still have real hope.
We now have a President who is on the right side, who is as outraged as we are, and who is willing to expend precious political capital to get something done.
What’s more, the elections of 2012 showed the NRA to be somewhat of a paper tiger, a force whose legendary influence over elections may be partly myth. Clearly, last week’s vote shows the perception of the gun lobby’s strength, but recent electoral numbers suggest that they may no longer have the mass support to back it up.
But, we are now in a moment of regrouping and reassessing, and we must settle in for a long battle to make the real change that the American public demands, and that our safety requires. The national campaign to create reform must now make good use of our powerful allies, of the large majority of Americans who want change, and of the rising gulf between the NRA and its rank-and-file members. And we must abolish the Senate filibuster once-and-for-all so that a minority does not hold sway over the majority on each and every vote. Then we will have an opportunity to get more than just the minimum compromise that is acceptable to gun manufacturers.
Here are the most important bills that we must continue to vigorously push:
· The Assault Weapons Ban, which would ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of semi-automatic assault weapons: a ban on the transfer or possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices. No one needs a 30-round clip to hunt deer.
· We need a system of Universal Background Checks so that, no matter where someone buys a gun – from a store, from a dealer, from a gun show, online – they will be subject to a thorough review. It’s estimated that 40% of gun buyers do not go through background checks at all, which is like having four out of every ten people choose whether they want to go through airport security. This lets felons, domestic abusers, and those prohibited because of mental illness easily bypass the criminal background check system and buy firearms at gun shows, through private sellers, over the internet, or out of the trunks of cars.
· The Fix Gun Checks Act would specifically prohibit the sale of firearms to all individuals listed in the National Instant Criminal background check System, and would require a background check for every firearm sale – including at gun shows and online.
· The previously-mentioned Assault Weapons Ban also includes a buyback provision, which would allow the use of Byrne Grant funds to compensate individuals who voluntarily surrender semi-automatic assault weapons and large capacity feeding devices under buyback programs. This would be the government paying to get these weapons – and there are an estimated 250 million guns in this country – off of our streets.
· A gun buyback program was successfully used in Australia a few years back, following a mass shooting. The Australian government bought back 650,000 guns, entirely eliminating mass killings in the 14 years since, and reducing deaths by firearms overall. There have been many smaller scale buyback programs in the United States.
· The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, which would require all ammunition dealers to be licensed.
· I have introduced a bill to prevent child sex offenders from using guns. That, believe it or not, is not against the law now.
And there’s a lot more we can do. We can crack down on straw purchasers and trafficking; improve school safety and mental health services; restore real enforcement powers to the ATF; require liability insurance for gun owners; make gun manufacturers and gun dealers liable for negligence for the destruction that their products inflict on innocent people; and so on.
If you ask me, every one of these measures is a necessary and commonsense step to protect Americans – on our streets, in our schools, in the workplace, at home – from preventable and tragic gun violence. Our job now is to continue to educate our colleagues, friends and neighbors about the need for legislation to prevent gun violence, to counter the stranglehold of the NRA on vulnerable legislators, and to pass the strongest legislation we possibly can.
It’s our duty as responsible Americans who want to live in a peaceful, safe, and truly free society. Frankly, people around the world look at our society and wonder how we, the United States of America, can tolerate 10,000 gun deaths per year. And we should wonder the same thing.
Thank you. And now I’d be very happy to take any questions.
Image courtesy of Congressmen Nadler
Last Thursday a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives reintroduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Current federal law contains no prohibition on discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in personnel decisions. A number of states have taken their own action to protect employees of all sexual orientation and gender identity, but today it remains legal to fire, fail to hire, demote or fail to promote an employee because of their sexual orientation in 29 states – it remains legal to do so based on an employee’s gender identity in 34. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeks to close that gap and extend the current laws that protect people because of their race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion and disability to include protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Across our country, LGBT Americans face the daily fear of losing their jobs and livelihood simply because of who they are or who they love,” Representative Jared Polis, the bill’s lead sponsor in the House, said at the bill’s introduction. “Dedicated individuals should be judged based on their work, nothing more and nothing less.” The tenor of Rep. Polis’ words, and indeed the tenor of the bill itself, resonates deeply with Jewish history and tradition. If all people are created in the image of God, how can we justify treating some in the work place differently than others? And if we as a people once needed such protections in order to succeed in America, how can we deny them to our fellow citizens today?
Because of these resonances with the Reform Jewish community, the Religious Action Center has taken a leading role in fighting for ENDA’s passage. In response to ENDA’s reintroduction Rachel Laser, the Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center, released the following statement: “The Religious Action Center was founded over fifty years ago to bring the voice and commitment of the Reform Jewish community to the Civil Rights movement. Today, we remain committed to ensuring the civil rights of all Americans are protected, including members of the LGBT community, and look forward to the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and to furthering the cause of equality in America.”
A full text of Rachel Laser’s statement can be found here and be sure to keep checking the RACblog for updates on this landmark civil rights bill.
Image courtesy of dailykos.com
Last week, the Jerusalem District Court determined that the recent detention of Women of the Wall members for their activities at the Western Wall was unjustified. The decision was met with applause from Reform Leaders.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, explained, “We were especially pleased to hear the judge state that the Law of Holy Places, which gives visitors to the Kotel the opportunity to pray according to ‘local custom,’ does not mandate that these be Orthodox customs. We expect local authorities to respect the court’s decision and let non-Orthodox Jews pray at this holy site according to their own customs without fear of police detention or restraint.”
Similar sentiment was shared by Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, who expressed, “Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) is optimistic about the court’s decision today to guarantee the right of women to worship freely at this most holy site.”
Barbara Kavadias, Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), joined in saying, “We believe this ruling enhances Natan Sharansky’s proposal to provide for egalitarian prayer at an expanded Kotel site and look forward to the day when all people are free to pray at the Kotel according to their own customs.”
Image courtesy of Women of the Wall
Sport is one of the great equalizers. I often speak about my time in competitive swimming, and all that it gave me. There are really no limits to the values one can learn from team sports. We learn discipline and hard work, as well as how to work with others. We learn how to accept defeat and how to be gracious winners. Unfortunately, for members of the Israeli Youth Basketball Association, they are also learning how to exclude female players. It seems that for some the value is simply: No Girls Allowed.
We have heard the reasons for this outrage before, but rarely in situations that affect people so young. The regulations of the Israeli Basketball Association state that although teams are mixed (boys and girls) until the players are 12, if an Orthodox group doesn’t want to play against girls because it offends their religious inclinations, the girls should be banned from the game, or their team would forfeit. This extreme interpretation of modesty has now been extended to ten-year-old girls, and as usual the Israeli authorities capitulate.
One victim of this surrender is Shira Greenbaum, age 10, from Ra’anana, who only wants to play with her local team. There are not enough girls for an all girls league, so Shira and other girls were being integrated into mixed teams. These new teams were supposed to compete in the league. When the coach of an opposing team realized that his players would have to face a mixed team he demanded that only boys would be allowed on the court. Shira’s coach refused to play without her and, as a result, her team lost.
Shira said, “I don’t understand why they won’t let me play. Boys who don’t want to play against me because they are afraid of touching or bumping into me should just get off the court.” Imposing the religious prohibition against any physical contact between unmarried members of the opposite sex in the past was not relevant to people in this age group.
The Israel Religious Action Center’s legal team has filed two appeals with the Israeli Youth Basketball Association to end this unfair practice, and to allow Shira to play with her team. Every time secular and religious moderates allow the will of religious extremists to prevail coexistence suffers. In this particular case, children suffer.
Shira Greenbaum has gone though the humiliation of being told she cannot play a sport she loves and is now dealing with the stress of a public legal battle. Our legal team is doing everything they can to help her and other girls like her. We are committed to cheering for Shira on the sidelines very soon.
This article appeared in Tablet Magazine on December 19, 2012.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has sparked passionate debate about whether or not we need stricter gun-control laws in this country—and the Jewish community is no exception. For every organization like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which aggressively advocates for strict gun control, there are others like Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, who call gun control “code words for disarming innocent people.” Both camps, of course, claim that Judaism is on their side.
Who’s telling the truth? What does Judaism actually have to say about guns? The question can’t be answered with the perfect passage from the Torah or the Talmud, in part because the rabbis could never have fathomed the destructive nature of modern guns, like the ones that took the lives of 27 people in Newtown last Friday. To understand what our sages would have thought about our modern problems of unlimited ammunition and semiautomatic weapons, we have to examine their perspective on the dangers of their time—such as swords, dogs, stumbling blocks, and snakes. Their wisdom remains eerily relevant.
Swords and Other Weapons
There is little doubt that our rabbinic forebears lived in a violent world: The Talmud is full of stories and rules regarding ropes, chains, stocks, swords, and shields. Yet their views on these implements were not monolithic. On the one hand, the 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides says that when Lemach, Adam’s great-great grandson (mentioned in the fourth chapter of Genesis) taught his son to smelt metal, his wives protested. They worried that through this simple act, Lemach was bringing death into the world since now humans would be able to make swords. However, Lemach, according to Nachmanides’ interpretation, replied to the wives that murder existed well before weapons. After all, his great-grandfather Cain killed his brother Abel with his bare hands. The story is perhaps the oldest variation on the phrase made famous on so many bumper stickers: Swords don’t kill people. People kill people.
But the story of Lemach is not even close to the Jewish tradition’s last word on the matter. The Mishnah, in Tractate Shabbat, records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of rabbis called the sages about whether one may carry weapons on Shabbat. According to Eliezer, weapons like swords, bows, or cudgels were considered “adornments” like jewelry or hair ribbons. Since these items are essentially like one’s clothing we don’t have to worry about them violating the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, he argues.
The sages disagree. They call these weapons a “disgrace” and point to the most famous prophetic text from the book of Isaiah to show that humanity’s goal is to someday make these weapons disappear: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The sages ultimately win this debate; later authorities rely more heavily on their opinion.
For most of our ancient ancestors their view of weapons fell somewhere between these two extremes. In ancient days, the sale of weapons was heavily regulated. Selling weapons to enemies was strictly forbidden since they might use them against you (Avodah Zarah 15b). Where these laws become interesting is over the question of who is worthy to buy weapons. Jewish law permits one to sell weapons to friendly neighbors and even to allied nations (Avodah Zarah 16a). However one cannot sell weapons of any kind to someone who has committed murder or to a “cowardly thief.” While the former limitation is obvious, it is less clear why selling weapons to a coward is condemned. The answer, our tradition teaches, is that it is a coward’s nature to panic when caught in a stressful situation. Weapons may not inherently be dangerous, but in the wrong hands they are uncontrollable.
The Dangerous Dog
While swords and spears featured heavily in the world of our forefathers, it was not uncommon for a person in the fifth or sixth century to keep a dangerous animal, usually a wild dog, on his property to protect himself from robbers. However, the owner of such a dog was not given full freedom to do as he wished with his animal. It is written in the Shulchan Aruch, the preeminent 16th-century Jewish law code, that in a normal city it is forbidden to raise a dangerous dog unless he is tied up with a metal chain (Choshen Mishpat 409:3). The thinking behind this ruling is that while a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting the dog go free is too much since we don’t know whom the dog might attack.
This ruling differs starkly, however, in the outskirts of a village. Here, the Shulchan Aruch says, one may keep the dog untied at night as long as he is tied up by day. Here, because the nights were dark, help was far away, and danger was more prevalent, your dog could keep watch despite the risk.
In a way, the example of the village dog follows the general Jewish view that people have a right to defend themselves despite the risks to others. Classical Jewish law permits killing for self-defense: The Talmud teaches that if someone breaks into your house, you have a right to defend yourself, even if it is not clear that they mean to kill you (Sanhedrin 72a). However, the principle of self-defense isn’t limitless. The village dog still must be tied up by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free. When danger is not at its most acute, societal accountability trumps personal protection.
Although the case of the dog lends itself to pragmatism, the case of the snake does not. According to classical Jewish law, there are a number of animals that are considered too dangerous to keep. In Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4, the sages list these animals as wolves, lions, bears, leopards, panthers, and snakes. Falling into a legal category called mu’ad, these animals are known as dangerous by nature. If they attack someone, their owner can’t claim that it was in any way an accident. He is assumed liable because he shouldn’t have them in the first place. And yet, in the discussion of these animals, Rabbi Eliezer, our pro-weapon enthusiast from above, jumps in. He argues that all these animals are trainable except one, the snake.
At issue in this debate is the effectiveness of safeguards. Eliezer believes that we can train dangerous animals to be less dangerous. The sages do not. Yet both agree that there are some creatures that are just too much of a liability. It is not clear whether these animals were used for defense or play, but either way it dovetails with the gun debate. There is no doubt that guns are dangerous, and the rabid misuse of guns brings into question whether good training of people or society could quell gun violence. Perhaps it’s a lost cause and, as is the case with a snake, you just don’t know what will happen when they are around.
The Blood Avenger
If these animal analogies seem too strained, there is one important human parallel the sages provide: the blood avenger. According to the Bible (Numbers 25, Deuteronomy 19), if a person commits manslaughter, he may flee to one of six cities of refuge to avoid vengeance from a member of his victim’s family, called the blood avenger. He would wait in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which point he would go free, forever immune from retribution. This esoteric law fits in with the gun debate when it comes to the rabbis’ ruling over what people were forbidden to bring into the city. Talmud, Makkot 10a, reads:
No weapons—not even a hunter’s gear—should be sold [in a city of refuge]. Such is the opinion of Rabbi Nehemiah, but the sages permit such sales. However, both agree that no traps are to be set, nor are nooses to be knotted in these towns, so that the blood avenger may not be tempted to acquire these weapons while visiting a city of refuge.
More than anything, limiting the weapons in these cities of refuge was meant to deter the blood avenger from breaking the law and killing the now immune murderer in a fit of rage. True, the city, like any city, deserves to protect itself. But the risk of allowing weapons to fall into the hands of unstable people who may actually use them outweighs any consideration of defense.
The Stumbling Block
The final analogy appears in the command in Leviticus 19:14 to avoid putting “a stumbling block in front of the blind.” The rule is understood as speaking not only of a physical barrier, and the rabbis broadened this definition to include anything that adds undue danger or harm to someone who is unable to expect it. Gun-control groups often cite this text as a touchstone to their argument for why gun access should be limited. Since guns might be found by children who don’t understand their power, or acquired by unstable individuals who do not have the adequate means to keep their emotions in check, guns can often become a dangerous stumbling block. Jewish law teaches that “it is a positive commandment to remove and be vigilant about any stumbling block where there is a danger to someone’s life … and if you do not remove it or leave the stumbling block and it brings about danger you have failed in your mission to fulfill the commandment and [you] may have been responsible for spilling another’s blood” (S.A Choshen Mishpat 427:8). In another words, if you sell a stumbling block or leave it in the open you are responsible if someone dies even though you did not pull the trigger.
Jewish denominations have plenty to say about gun control. The Reform and Conservative movements have both issued statements about the need for steeper gun-control measures. However, in the Reform movement’s multiple resolutions on the matter, dating back to the 1970s, and the Conservative movement’s to 1993 and 2012, make almost no mention of Jewish texts in justification for their positions.
Perhaps liberal Jews who support gun control are reluctant to draw on our classical texts because guns are so different from swords, dogs, snakes, or any other items. After all, a single sword can’t kill dozens of people in seconds. Guns don’t have minds of their own, like dogs. Lions aren’t easily concealed. Yet, when taken as a whole, I believe these texts provide us with a clear ethic.
All these analogies weigh individual interests with societal good. The rabbis understood the liability that an owner of weapons or animals faced and did their best to safeguard against anything that might cause their misuse. You can certainly protect yourself, says the tradition, but not at all costs. Furthermore, the rabbis were not uniform in who could own dangerous things. Unstable individuals shouldn’t own swords. Neither should those who did not understand how to use them. Anyone who might panic can’t buy weapons, nor should someone who can’t control their animals.
Jewish law has never worked in a vacuum, and so it is impossible to totally divorce our modern values from our ancient texts. Nevertheless, I believe that the ethics displayed in these texts teach us that we are not doing enough to safeguard our society and keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who might misuse them. I have little doubt that were I unfamiliar with these texts, I would still support background checks, waiting periods, and bans on assault weapons. But I’m proud to be a part of a religion that contains legal ethics and values that fall in line with why I support these positions: a desire to safeguard against accidents, a vision of keeping weapons out of the hands of those who may misuse them, and an emphasis on societal good.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.
Marc Katz is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn and is a former Eisendrath Legislative Assistant.
This week the Senate Agriculture Committee is marking up the Farm Bill. Translation: A group of 20 senators is sitting around a fancy table working their way, line-by-line, through over 1,000 pages of a bill that will govern nearly all farm-related and food policy both domestically and internationally for the next 5 years. And you thought your schedule for this week looked rough!
Our nation’s food policies as embodied in the Farm Bill impact people and communities across the nation. 1 in 2 children will benefit from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) before they turn 21. Especially as we slowly recover from a recession, SNAP works. It is one of the most responsive federal anti-poverty programs, meaning that in an economic downturn it enrolls more struggling families, and as soon as the economy begins to creep back up, people quickly regain economic security without the assistance of SNAP and enrollment declines. It is, as our middle school math teachers taught us, an inverse relationship.
Our sages explain that feeding the hungry is one of our most important responsibilities on earth: “When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry’” (Midrash to Psalm 118:17). There is a great and unmistakable need for anti-hunger programs, and Congress must make sure that strong funding for SNAP is included in the Farm Bill.
This week, as SNAP is under more scrutiny than ever, it is vital that you remind Congress how important SNAP is to millions of American families struggling to put food on the table, even while bringing home a full-time salary. Urge your Members of Congress to cosponsor H.Res. 90 and reject any cuts to SNAP benefits in the Farm Bill. For more information about hunger, contact Legislative Assistant Raechel Banks at 202-387-2800.
The question was so simple. “What drives you to do social justice?” But the answer was so complex and varied. The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation. But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal. After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all. And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.
I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that. It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.
And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group. Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment. In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program. But we didn’t do that. We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful. We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world. It had all the potential to be go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical. But it wasn’t. It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we created sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.
That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community. Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom. But it begins by listening and by sharing.
The question was so very simple. But I am grateful that it was asked. Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.
Rabbi Liz Wood is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, NY and is a 2012-2013 Brickner Fellow. This was originally posted on RavBlog.