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We must reduce gun violence

In December I sat with 5,000 other Reform Jews and joined in an erev Shabbat service that was uplifting and heartfelt, musical and deeply engaging. It was a blast! … but for me the most poignant part of the service was one that was anything but joyful. I sat with eyes welling up with tears as I listened to Mindy Finkelstein tell her story.

When Mindy was 16 years old, in the summer of 1999, she was a Jewish camp counselor at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Los Angeles. That summer Buford Furrow drove to LA desiring to open fire at the Skirball Cultural Center, the American Jewish University and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. He had maps for these places in his car. But when he arrived at these Jewish locales, he saw their security and decided he needed a different target. Buford had five rifles, two pistols, 6,000 rounds of ammunition in his car. He later said that he wanted his shooting to “be a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.”

So where could he go now? While filling up his car with gas, he looked across the street and saw the JCC. It did not have security. The next morning Buford went in to the JCC with his Uzi-style semiautomatic weapon. At the same time that he entered through the front door, Mindy, with her class of preschoolers, was coming in through the back door. Buford opened fire — spraying at least 70 shots into the complex. Three children, a receptionist and Mindy were shot. It is surprising that more people were not hurt. Mindy was shot several times in her leg, and one of her campers was shot as well. Amazingly, all of the people at the JCC survived that day. Buford Furrow left the JCC, went to another neighborhood and opened fire at short range on a mail carrier — who died.

Mindy recuperated and has made it her life mission to work to reduce gun violence. I hope we will all join her in the fight to curtail access to guns — especially semi-automatic and automatic weapons — which NO average person needs in our society. On the very day that Mindy told this story to 5,000 of us, there was a shooting at a school and more school shootings have happened since. On average, 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms each year! Thirty Americans are murdered each day. With 88 guns per 100 people, the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. By contrast, Yemen, the No. 2 country, has 55 guns per 100 people. Israel, you might be interested to know, has only seven guns per 100 people.

A year after Sandy Hook most people agree that we need to reform gun legislation but pro-gun lobbies have made that very difficult, but not impossible.

As Sarah Brady, wife of former press secretary James Brady), put it, “We have cracked down on library books, cell phone calls, fertilizer purchases and wearing shoes in the airport, but we have done almost nothing (at the state level) to make it harder for either a terrorist or garden variety armed robber, or young person to get their hands on a handgun.”

Is this a religious issue? It is! Our religion urges us to get involved in creating a more just and compassionate world. This is a rallying call of Judaism. Deuteronomy urges “justice, justice you must pursue.” Leviticus commands “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”

We as an American Jewish community have often been a voice for reason and activism in the political arena. We have not been afraid to speak out strongly for causes we felt were important. And we HAVE been effective. Now is a time to join our voices to those of others around the United States who are looking for ways to reduce gun violence. You can go on to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center’s website (rac.org) to learn more about advocacy on this topic. We should not turn a blind eye to the violence. I hope we can work together and with others to reduce the bloodshed.

Rabbi Debbie Stiel is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka, Kan. This article is adapted from a sermon she gave on Dec. 20, 2013. It was originally published in the congregation’s February newsletter to members.