Faith Communities Organize Against Gun Violence


John O. Mason

Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence

On Sunday, February 13, 2011, the Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence, a group of religious communities organized to bring down handgun deaths, held its first meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. The group is based in the Northwest Philadelphia — including Germantown, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, Nicetown — and is affiliated with Heeding God’s Call, a religiously-based advocacy group against gun violence.

Congregations involved with NPGV include:

  • Mishkan Shalom Synagogue,
  • First Presbyterian Church in Germantown,
  • Chestnut Hill United Church,
  • Germantown Mennonite Church,
  • Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, and
  • the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The Reverend Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, is one of the Co-Coordinators for NPGV. “The Northwest part of the city,” she says, “has the highest incident of gun-related violent deaths of the whole city… So it affects us very significantly in this corner of the city.” NPGV is a faith based organization, says Noonan, “that consists of churches, synagogues, faith-based organizations, and partnerships.”

Of the organization of NPGV, Noonan says, “Folk in the faith communities in the Northwest have been aware that we have the highest incident of gun related deaths in the city, and so we felt moved, as clergy and lay people and people of faith, to take action. Many of us are already connected with Heeding God’s Call, which is a broader citywide and national organization, and we wanted to focus specifically in the northwest corner and mobilize our congregations in this part of the city to take action with a specific gun shop in Philadelphia.”

More after the jump.
The illegal sale of guns, adds Noonan, “knows no neighborhood boundaries. Guns sold in one neighborhood are easily moved across the city and across state lines as well. While there are no gun shops in Northwest Philadelphia, we still have the highest incident of gun-related deaths.

“Our position,” Noonan goes on, “isn’t gun control, it’s reducing and eliminating the gun-related deaths in the city…Our mission is to pressure gun-shop owners to voluntarily sign on to the code of conduct which implements ten measures that would significantly reduce the likelihood that the guns they sell will not be resold illegally (a “straw purchase”) and used in violent crimes.”

The Code of Conduct for gun retailers, which NPGV and Heeding God’s Call advocates, includes videotaping the sale of guns at the point of transaction; a computerized crime gun trace system; a declaration by purchasers that they meet the legal requirements for purchasing a firearm; accepting only state and federally issued identification cards; signs alerting customers of the legal responsibilities; employee background checks for selling and handling firearms; employee responsibility training; daily and quarterly audits of inventory; no sales without background check results; and firearms in secure and locked cabinets.  

Bryan Miller, Director of Public Advocacy of Heeding God’s Call, says that HGC and NPGV are “explicitly non-legislative” (they do not participate in contacting state or federal legislators on firearms bills). “Although we will contact on specific legislation is moving, we’ll ask our members to make phone calls, but we don’t lobby in Harrisburg or Washington, we’re sort of behind the scenes if you will, but we do view our work as having an important long-term legislative effect. In order to pass legislation, you need to build grassroots support for it. That an important part of what we do.”

As for working with police, Miller says, “We contact the police before we do any public actions, like the ones we did at Colosimo’s (the gun store on Eighth and Spring Garden streets, since shut down), and soon at a couple of gun shops in Philadelphia. Although we obviously support law enforcement very strongly, we don’t work too closely together. Law enforcement’s goal is to deal with demand for illegal guns and the crimes that result. What’s we’re seeking to do is restrict the supply, it’s a whole different way of looking at it and a different set of activities… We focus on diminishing the likelihood of gun going from the gun shop to the street, and if there are fewer guns on the street, there are fewer people that are going to be able to use them.”

Bob Swenson worked as an internist and infectious disease doctor at Temple University Hospital for forty years. “That is the busiest emergency room in Philadelphia,” he says, “I think it’s the biggest in the United States. The level of gun violence was incredible, we were in the emergency room every day, trying to save somebody, many of which we couldn’t. The thing that got to me was seeing the people who survived — lives were altered forever. Fifteen-year-old kids who are now paraplegic or quadriplegic, I would see them over the years because of their infection, and they would die at twenty-seven. For me, the level of people maimed, it’s like a hundred and fifty thousand people a year in Philadelphia are shot and (they) survived. Many of those people are left with deficits that make their life difficult, and they eventually die at an early age because of complications.”

Swenson heard of the organizing of NPGV several months ago when he decided “that I wanted to be involved, to try to do something, because…(in foreign countries), it’s like a hundred people are shot in Japan a year, and maybe three hundred in Great Britain. It’s something that’s at least in theory preventable.”  

POTUS Expert Dr. Harold Kirsh at National Liberty Museum

Dr. Kirsh with paintings of the presidents playing cards; on his left were Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and to his right were Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush I and II.John Oliver Mason

Dr. Harold Kirsh spoke at the National Liberty Museum about his new book Thank You, America: A Pictorial and Anecdotal History of the United States.

Describing himself as politically in the center, Kirsh displayed beside him on the podium paintings of the presidents playing cards; on his left were Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and to his right were Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush I and II.

After his discussion, Kirsh sold and autographed copies of the book.

More after the jump including a preview of the chapter on POTUS #1 George Washington.
Dr. Harold Hirsh and his book Thank You, AmericaKirsh explained:

This book is a complete history of the United States, based on using the presidents as the main characters (in) a play that takes place in a theater of American history that occurs each week over of a year. The forty-four presidents are reviewed, from Washington through Obama. It’s a history of the United States based, however, on the presidents as the chief character (of a play)… and based on the factors that helped mold their character, the influences they had on them as young people, the influences of their mothers, fathers, and grandparents, teachers, clergy, events, and locale, to make them the kind of people that they were when they became presidents –‘As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.’

I found out (that) by doing that for all forty-four presidents, I understood that if you’re going to vote for a presidential candidate the next time,  you needn’t see if he was a mayor, governor, or congressperson, you look back to see how he was as a young person. In all of us, the character we have as young people remains as our core values. If you’re satisfied with voting on the basis of that, you’re pretty well assured you’re going to get (someone) who’s honest, trustworthy, who has the proper purposes, who may or may not have faith, but you’ll know what you’re getting.

And then, I take it all the way through their campaigns and their inaugural addresses and what they promised they would do, and then I’d look into their biography to see those factors. I take it all the way through to whatever they did to their demise, while the next president is waiting behind the scenes ready to come out. All the facts are there, (but) it’s presented fictionally, as though my wife and I attend a theater each week; when the curtain goes up, you see the setting the country is in at that particular time in history, (and) you see the president come on the stage.

Kirsh, 87, was born in South Philadelphia. And his family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey in his childhood. He studied undergraduate at Temple University and then at the Osteopathic Medical School, interned in Missouri, and then opened his practice in Cherry Hill, New Jersey: “I was the first doctor to practice in that town,” he recalls, “and I practiced there for thirty years, and delivered about a thousand babies, did general practice, and helped established the first hospital there as well. I was also instrumental in developing Rutgers South Jersey College of Medicine branch in Strafford, New Jersey.” Kirsh has four children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In 1976, Kirsh moved to North Palm Beach, Florida, where he established another medial practice and later became chief of staff at a nearby hospital; two years later, he helped organize another hospital, Wellington Regional Medical Center, and became chairman of its board.

Witnessing the funeral of Presidents Reagan, Kennedy, and Ford, said Kirsh, “I decided how fortunate I was that my wife and I, both born of the first generation from immigrant parents, (were) born that way, as American citizens.” Kirsh decided “to visit a few of the museums to say thanks to each of the presidents for what they did.”

Kirsh and his wife drove from their home in Florida and toured the country visiting sites related the presidents; “I drove 14,000 miles,” he recalled, “I visited 110 museums, met presidents and advisors to presidents, archivists in some of the museums, and got a whole insight into the presidency and American history. I kept notes, bought all kinds of books…I saw American history geographically, but I really wanted to know it chronologically, I wanted a timeline.” In his writing, said Kirsh, “I said, I have the makings of a book that can be called, ‘Thank you, America.’ That is how it came about.”  

Excerpt from Thank You, America: A Pictorial and Anecdotal History of the United States

Old City Jewish Art Center

   

John O. Mason

The Old City Jewish Art Center, located on 119 North Third Street, is a Jewish-themed art gallery in Old City which hosts Shabbat services, including services and a meal,  during the traditional First Friday exhibits among the galleries in the area.

Artists whose works have been exhibited include Rita Ackert, Steve Belkowitz, Linda Dubin Garfield, Liliana Life, Carla Goodstein, Peter Reich, and Mordechai Rosenstein, Mickie Rosen, Hinda Schuman, Susan Leonard, Kathryn Pannepacker, Else Wachs, Paulette Bensignor, Susan Forbes, Rachel Issac, B.Leah Palmer, and Barbara Rosenzweig.

More after the jump.
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, founder of the gallery,  was born in Irvington, New Jersey,  and grew up near Highland Park, near Rutgers. “I grew up in a Conservative synagogue,” he says, “and I became involved with Lubavich (or Chabad Hasidism) when I was about twenty. I was a Television and Radio major at Syracuse University, and I (had) a dual major in Art History.” After graduating, Schmidt attained shmicha (rabbinical ordination) and he was asked by Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, regional director of Chabad activities, under the guidance of the Lubavicher Rebbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to organize the Lubavich House at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is still Executive Director.

The gallery, says Schmidt, ” is a resultant project of a lot of (Lubavich) programs.” Of the center’s mission, he says, “Art is a very valuable expression of  Judaism, it’s a valuable expression in order to express ideas in Judaism, in order to bring people together. It also creates commonality between all kinds of different people.”

The artists featured in the gallery, Schmidt adds, “are al different in terms of their connection to Judaism, in their own personal observance, and to me that’s very exciting.”

As for the gallery’s First Friday programs, Schmidt says, “We live in Center City, and I’m involved in a lot of the projects in center City, and I always have my eye on First Friday. Before we opened, there was never anything Jewish happening on First Friday. It’s not only Jewish, it’s also something that brings people together besides commerce, it’s (also) something that’s creating a community, which is a message of Judaism. We didn’t really know if there would be any interest in it. My daughter lived close by and I asked her to see if she could find any empty art galleries or any empty spaces that we could squat in, and we’ll see how it goes. Yehudi Bork owned this space, and he was happy to let us use it.”

One of the people active with the center is Diane Litten, an artists whose makes jewelry, hats and scarves, which she calls “fine art accessories.” “They needed somebody here(at the center),” she adds, ” and I needed a studio, so we made an arrangement.” Litten takes part in setting up the center for shows; she calls that arrangement “excellent, wonderful.” Her work does not have a religious or Jewish theme, “but it’s an arty theme.”  

Cynthia Blackwood, a member of the Board of Directors of the center, speaks of the theme of the center’s October show, based on the 27th Psalm, which is said on Elul before Rosh Ha-Shona: “This is a show I wanted to put together. Rabbi Schmidt and I worked out a theme, and I called artists in to do a piece relating to the 27th Psalm, and they did, all thirteen artists. I did the calligraphy (with the Psalm in Hebrew), so you’re walking in and that’s the Psalm. I wanted you to feel like you’re wrapped in the Psalm.” The art works in the exhibit, adds Blackwood, “relate to the feelings that the artists have while reading the Psalm.”

Painter Barbara Rosin says of her works in the exhibit, “I’m a professional artist,  and Cynthia (Blackwood) is my framer, and she’s very familiar with my work. She invited me to participate, and she sent me material about the 27th Psalm and the month of Elul. It was extremely interesting, a lot of commentary, it was very interesting for me to work on.

“I’m a landscape painter,” Rosin adds, about her painting her work, “and the psalm made me think of very serene places, sanctuary, (being) free from harm.”
     

Celebration of Mesillat Yesharim at Beth Zion-Beth Israel


John Oliver Mason

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) celebrated the new edition of the classic Jewish text, Mesillat Yesharim, at a brunch and discussion held at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

Messillat Yesharim is a classic in Jewish Mussar (ethical) literature, written by the Kabbalist Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. It was translated into English by Doctor Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism. The new edition has an introduction and commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone, of Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

More after the jump.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz, CEO of  JPS, welcomed everyone attending, and commended BZBI for providing the brunch, and he also thanked the Kehillah of center City for co-sponsoring the event. “It’s is truly an event,” he said, “that cuts across denominational lines, and it’s wonderful to see representatives from many different synagogues and different streams of Judaism this morning.”  Schwartz spoke of the life of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, “A great Italian rabbi whose life straddles the transition from Medieval Judaism to Modernity.”

Schwartz also spoke of his research into the rabbis in Amsterdam in the 17th century for an upcoming book on that era, adding, “One of the things I’ve learned is that these individuals, these rabbis were very well-schooled and educated, and applied a rational approach to understanding Judaism and understanding text, in the spirit of Maimonides. At the same time, some of these same individuals had very strong, mystical and kabalistic leanings. We’re used to dividing people into categories, rationalists and mystics; but what we’ve discovered from (studying) this period is that one individual, the same individual, could hold all these views together in different parts of their lives.” Kaplan, said Schwartz, was not comfortable in researching Luzzatto, because Luzzatto was not a pure rationalist, but also a mystic.

The re-publication of Mesillat Yesharim, said Schwartz, was made possible by a donation from the family of Miles Lerman, who “became a study partner with Rabbi Stone, in the subject that this book covers which is Mussar, the ethical impulse if Judaism.”

Susan Stanek, Director of the Kehillah, said, “It’s amazing to see so many people from so many synagogues (represented), and how wonderful it is to see our community coming together to support Rabbi Stone, BZBI, and the Jewish Publication Society.”  

David Lerman, President of the Jewish Publication Society and son of Miles Lerman, told the audience, “I’m privileged to be a member of this congregation, and I’m especially privileged to have the opportunity to study with Rabbi Stone…

During the High Holy Days,” added Lerman, “Rabbi Stone told us in the congregation that one of his commitments this year was to multiply the opportunities for the members of the congregation to encounter text. For people who weren’t raised studying at yeshivot, who didn’t have as natural an opportunity to encounter text, approaching text seems a little intimidating, and text seems difficult to access.”

The purpose of JPS, said Lerman, is “to create opportunities for exploring Jews to have a chance to understand and explore our roots and our traditions, in ways that enrich and expand our contemporary lives.”

Professor Mel Scult, pre-eminent authority on the life of Mordecai Kaplan and co-editor of an anthology of Kaplan’s writings, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential writings of Mordecai Kaplan,  said of the Mesillat Yesharim, “(It) has been popular for a very long time, and was central to the Jewish community in the 18th and 19th centuries. What Mordecai Kaplan did was, he brought it into his own time. Every translation is really a commentary,  really an interpretation, and he brought it into the world of the 1930’s. What Rabbi Stone has done is he has reconstructed it for our own time.”

Scult described the book as “a how-to book on Jewish religiosity, spirituality, and ethics. All of us want to move from where we are to a higher level, and Luzzatto, Kaplan, and Rabbi Stone help us do that.”

Rabbi Stone thanked the JPS staff and everyone who participated.  

The Real Cost of Belt Tightening

Have you heard the news? The City of Camden plans to close their three public libraries, due to the economic crisis plaguing the nation. The Camden County library system is planning to take the Camden City libraries over, but they still spoke of closing some branches. State and municipal government are experimenting with similar pinchpenny ideas — the City of Philadelphia has planned “rolling blackouts” (they call them) of fire stations, whereby the stations are closed in revolving shifts for a couple of days or so. Colorado Springs plans to turn off a third of its street lights.

In Hawaii, public schools have closed on Fridays; Utah seriously debated either eliminating the 12th grade or making it optional. This is the point we have reached in this country – we have prided ourselves on our public school system, and we have always been told as kids, “Stay in school so you’ll get a good job.” Now with the economy in a shambles, there are no jobs to go to, good or bad. Plus, education is a way of empowerment, for personal growth; is education becoming a luxury, wasted on the likes of George W. Bush, an alumnus of Yale and the Harvard Business School? Look what it did for him, and us.

More after the jump…

For over thirty years, we have been inundated with calls to “limit big government”; the axiom is, government is in-and-of-itself incompetent, while the “free enterprise system” can do miracles. Part of that miracle making (the premise of the “supply-side economics” of Ronald Reagan) is to cut taxes on the most affluent of our citizens, who will invest their savings from their taxes into new equipment for their factories. Sounds like a good idea, right?
But the results are in — Factories are closed in this country and moved to foreign lands, where workers are repressed from organizing and get pocket change for wages; workers therefore lose their bargaining power when negotiating for wages and benefits, and the company reduces both, and the workers have no choice but to go along or lose both. The tax base is thereby also reduced, which means less comes in for taxes, and so services are reduced, such as schools, libraries, hospitals, police and fire stations, ambulance and emergency services, water sanitation, and street cleanup and repair, for example.
And for the corporations, they sic their lobbyists on Congress and the Executive branch — many lobbyists are veterans of both — and they get bailouts and tax breaks that, in the official mythology, stimulate the economy.
The official lie of welfare for the wealthy, socialism for the social register, is recycled after its failure; one of the gubernatorial candidates in South Carolina has been preaching this idea, tax cuts for corporations to stimulate economic growth, as if it’s so radical and brand new. (We Americans DO need to brush up on our history.)
The idea of community, of working for the betterment of the larger body, is treated like a joke at best, or (gasp!) COMMUNISM at worse. We are on our own, we are told, and we have to fight and kill each other for an insufficient number of jobs. Which we need to pay our bills. That is what has been passed off as “reality”. And what IS reality? Whatever the news media says it is? And what comprises the news media — whichever one you choose to believe?
Lately we hear the news flash that about one fifth of those surveyed believe that President Obama is a Muslim — and if he WERE a Muslim, why would that that a bad thing? He is definitely NOT a Muslim; I remember the  controversy around the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the church Obama attended in Chicago. That shows Obama’s not a Muslim — but if you want to slander someone, you don’t need reality.
I have recently attended the event of the media Mobilizing Project (MMP, I’ve been active with them for a while), for the viewing of their first TV show, on the appalling health care system in this country, focusing  on Philadelphia. (Why not? Washington is NOT the whole country.) This is a step, a strong step, towards people in the community, working people that we are, creating our own media. MMPTV will be broadcast over PhillyCAM, the new public access cable system, which goes over Comcast channel 66; here is a strong alternative to the commercial corporate news media. MMP’s slogan is “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories.”
What’s on my calendar? On Monday September 6 will be the Labor Day parade and family celebration, which will start  with assembling at the Sheet Metal workers’ Hall, 1301 South Columbus Boulevard, at 9:00 AM; after which there will be a rally with speakers, and then the march down Columbus Boulevard, to the festival area of Penn’s Landing. (Activists need to have fun, too.)
The Progressive Organizing Workshop (POW) will take place at Community College of Philadelphia, 17th and Spring Garden streets, on Saturday, September 25, from 1:00 PM to 4:30 PM. The focus will be on organizing poor and working people — 98 percent of the population — for political action. For further information, contact Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, at www.phillynn.org.
On Saturday, October 30, there will be the Town Meeting for Jobs Not Wars, at also at Community College of Philadelphia, 17th and Spring Garden streets. The stress will be on diverting our economic resources from military spending to peaceful pursuits that would create jobs for all. For more information, contact Tom Cronin, Director of the Comey Institute, St Joseph’s University, (215)353-1885, or e-mail tompainecronin@comcast.net.
I was pretty upset with the Shirley Sherrod incident; Sherrod, an official in the Agriculture Department, had to resign, somehow, because a video put out by Andrew Breitbart, one of the stars of Fox “News”, was edited to make it seem like she would discriminate against white farmers. The problem went so far that the NAACP repudiated Sherrod (not refudiated-so THERE, Sarah Palin!). But Sherrod and the NAACP made up, although she turned down an offer to rejoin the Obama administration. Why was a lie put forth by a rightist blogger accepted so readily?
Conservatives have the advantage of social respectability, that what they believe is the only socially acceptable and decent thing to think — the “conventional wisdom” — and anything that deviates from that is scrutinized, while the accepted conservative scenario is never questioned.
(And from the righting websites I’ve seen, they still believe their own lie that Breitbart exposed a racist regime in Washington — they live in their own parallel mental universe, which they force on those of us who still see reality.)
I was pleased, however, when President Obama showed some backbone supporting the construction of the Islamic Center in Manhattan. The right wing-dings, led by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, whined about the center’s supposed proximity to the site of the World Trade Center, the site of the September 11 tragedy. It disgusts me how these overpriced and overpaid media-molded cretins can come to the most cosmopolitan area of the country and exploit the pain and fears of those who endured the tragedy, for their own vote-mongering and money hustling purposes.
I am a Jew, damn proud of it, and I stand by and for Israel; and I SUPPORT the right of my Muslim fellow Americans to construct their community center. And while we’re in Ramadan, let us give our greetings to our Muslim neighbors, and learn all we can about their faith.
Enjoy the summer while you can — I will — and I bit you all Happy Labor Day. Bye!
 

Support the Jewish Labor Committee

John Mason

The Jewish Labor Committee is the Jewish voice within the Labor movement, and the Labor voice within the Jewish community, serving as a liaison between the two causes, sharing each side’s values.  
It was founded in February 1934 by Yiddish-speaking trade unionists, plus members of the Workmen’s Circle, the United Hebrew Trades, and the Jewish Socialist Bund, in order to combat the rise of Fascism in Europe and America.
In recent years, JLC has been active in the fight for the rights of immigrant workers, and has protested the abusive labor practices found in the Agroprocessors meat processing plant in Iowa, supported the Republic Windows and Doors workers in Chicago, and has worked for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists. One of JLC’s programs is the Labor Seder, linking the freedom struggle of the ancient Israelites to current and past Labor struggles.
Recently, the Philadelphia JLC has lost its funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which jeopardizes its ability to conduct its programs. Other JLC chapters may be facing this plight. If you want to help JLC, contact the main JLC office:
Jewish Labor Committee
25 East 21st Street
New York, NY 10010
(212)477-0707
jewishlabor.org