One Small But Significant Step Forward Against Gun Violence

Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

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The Executive Order signed by President Obama is such an example of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching. We cannot eliminate all acts of gun violence, but we must do what we can to advance the cause. Regardless of one’s stance on the Second Amendment or the effectiveness of these Executive Orders, we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrifying levels of violence and death that occur in our country. These limited executive actions seek to better enforce existing laws. The idea that criminals and emotionally disturbed people will find it harder to gain access to weapons of death is a good one.

I wish we could do more, but that is not a reason to do nothing. Progress comes in small steps, an incremental march toward what should be from what is. We measure a great civilization not by its great monuments but by its ability to protect the weak within its society. The victims of mass shootings, the victims of urban gun violence, the victims of suicide are all testimony to how much more we have to do to protect ourselves and lift everyone to a better place.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” says the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Tao Te Ching). We have a long way to go before the work is complete, but at least we are started on the path.

Obama Takes Action On Gun Violence

Obama announced a package of Executive Actions aimed at fighting gun violence by strengthening and expanding the background check system to cover more sales, ensuring the the system has good records, and implementing new regulations and procedures to curtail trafficking and the illegal gun trade.

Complete transcript follows the video below.
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New JSPAN Pres. Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom Fights For Fairer Society

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) has elected Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom — one of the region’s most respected religious leaders, and someone who rarely shies away from speaking his mind — as its new president.

“I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity,” Rosenbloom said, “to have an impact on causes that I believe in.”

Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses on a range of domestic policy issues such as: church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education and race relations.

Rosenbloom is the Distinguished Service Rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park. He retired from the pulpit in June 2014 after leading the congregation for 36 years. During that time, he served as a leader in the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, as well as the Conservative Movement nationally. He developed a reputation for voicing his opinion on difficult political and social issues and grounding his outlook in Jewish sources.

“The Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality,” said Rosenbloom, who officially became JAPAN’s president on May 1. “We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.”

Rosenbloom has a long history of leadership, both inside and outside the Jewish community. He is one of the founders of the Old York Road Community Organization, a unique group of the seven synagogues in the Old York Road Corridor, dedicated to improving the quality of life in this major center of Jewish life in the region. In 2011, he was honored by the Cheltenham NAACP.He currently is a member of the Human Relations Commission of Cheltenham Township.

Deborah Weinstein, JAPAN’s immediate past-president, said that “Rabbi Rosenbloom enjoys enormous stature within the Jewish community. As an organization, we are thrilled to have him working with us and leading us as we pursue critical agendas.”

Rabbi Rosenbloom sat down with JSPAN Board Member Bryan Schwartzman for a wide-ranging discussion about the organization and the issues on its agenda. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

You spent your whole career as a congregational rabbi. Why, in your retirement, have you decided to take on this leadership role with JSPAN?

I have been familiar with JSPAN almost from its inception. Some of my congregants (Ken and Sue Myers) were involved in its founding and they have talked to me about JSPAN through the years. In fact, I was on a JSPAN panel about the Iraq War in 2009. I have always respected it as an advocate of social policy from a liberal standpoint that emerges out of Jewish teaching. I decided that I would be able to make an impact on causes that I believe in. I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity.

Is it easier to be an advocate on social justice issues now that you are retired from the rabbinate?

Well, I have more time. When I was a congregational rabbi, being the rabbi of a large congregation is really limiting on your time.But I was never reticent in expressing my political or social ideas, values, or opinions. I never felt that I had to hold back on what I believed in because I was the rabbi of a congregation. Everybody knew where I stood. In fact I was invited to participate in the JSPAN program on the Iraq War because of a very controversial High Holiday sermon I gave opposing the war.

What issues are highest on your agenda?

JSPAN has a huge portfolio. Right now, the turbulence in Baltimore highlights the issue of police interaction with the community. This is an indicator of the way in which many in the African
American community feel they do not have the full respect of the larger American society and do not have the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. It is unbelievable and unfortunate that in 2015, there are citizens who feel substantively unequal, with little hope of getting out of the situation that they are in. That has to do with racial prejudice, lack of quality education, violence, and income inequality. We are living in a time in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there are those who want to cut back on the safety net for the lowest earning members of society even further. Gun control is an issue I am immensely concerned about, as well as the quality of education.The fact that we have these problems in 21st century America, the richest country in the world and, arguably, the most advanced country in the world, should be a source of shame and embarrassment.

Much of the organized Jewish community has been primarily focused on confronting internal challenges. Should the community be more focused on issues impacting all of American society? Is there a balance that can be struck?

You can’t have a Jewish community that has become so insular that all we do is care about ourselves, issues that directly affect Jews and Israel. The Bible says, you know what it is like to be an outsider, you know the soul of an outsider, you know what it is like to be reviled and oppressed and enslaved. We can’t just hunker down and say, we are Jews and we only care about Jewish things. There was a late nineteenth, early twentieth century French journalist, Edmond Fleg, who was an assimilated Jew who rediscovered his Jewish roots. He wrote:

I am a Jew because Israel places humanity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because in every place where there are tears and suffering, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed, we must complete it.

To me, that is my credo. It is not to say that we don’t have to deal with the issues that affect us as Jews, but we can’t deal only with those issues and be true to who we are.

Does Judaism prescribe a liberal political philosophy? Should JAPAN’s approach be grounded in Jewish sources?

I don’t think you can always say that “the Jewish position is x,” and that leads to a specific JSPAN position. That is sort of like the strict constructionism of some of the conservatives on the Supreme Court. There are principles that Judaism teaches,and certain contemporary policies are either consistent with the tradition or inconsistent with the tradition. For instance, the Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality. The Talmud says that, whoever saves one person saves a whole world and whoever destroys one person destroys a whole world. We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.

In many ways, from the state of public education in Philadelphia to race relations, it seems like a bleak time in public life. How can activists and concerned citizens avoid giving in to despair or apathy?

Fleg, whom I mentioned earlier, says that “I am a Jew because, every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.” As long as people are willing to fight for a vision of society that is fairer for everyone, then there is no reason to despair. If people stop fighting for justice and equality, then there is every reason to despair.

Is it too early to ask what your goals are for JSPAN?

I am just learning the ins-and-outs of the organization. I think there is a sense that the organization is at a crossroads and needs to determine what it will be in the future. Up until now, JSPAN largely has focused on dealing with the issues of concern by trying to impact the courts and legislatures in judicious ways. We have not been mobilizing advocacy efforts on the part of men and women beyond the core group of the organization. There is now a significant group on the board that believes we must move beyond what we have done and create a greater advocacy presence within the community. We want to mobilize a larger number of people to work on behalf of our issues.

We want to generate community interest and passion around social justice issues — including economic inequality, education, election reform, gender equality, health care, immigration reform, mass incarceration, racism, separation of religion and state, and more—and to expand our advocacy role. We hope to create a broader constituency of the general Jewish population who feel that they can play a part in advancing social justice causes. Of course, we also want to continue what we have been doing well.For instance, we have filed many amicus briefs that have been cited because of their quality by judges who are hearing the cases. That needs to continue, as do testifying before legislative bodies, contacting legislators directly, and communicating through the media. But now we also want to develop more of a mass approach and find ways of getting more people involved.

All credit goes to JAPAN’s immediate past president, Deborah Weinstein and executive director, Rabbi George Stern, for steering the organization in this new direction.

What have you been up to since officially retiring last year?

My wife asks me the same question! What did you do today? I don’t know, I tell her, but I do know I was busy all day! I continue to be called on for life cycle events, funerals, weddings, baby namings. We have been doing more traveling. We just came back from a two-week trip to South Africa. My son got married in February. Between us, Cindy and I have five children. In the last year-and-a-half, we had three weddings! I cook a little bit. I finally learned to bake challah. And I do a lot of support work in the house, shall we say. I have more time. I see friends for breakfast and see friends for lunch. It is mostly unstructured. Now that I have become involved in JSPAN, I spend a lot of time answering emails and attending meetings! I don’t know when I had time to work.

From Frustration to Inspiration: Events Against Gun Violence in Pa.

— by Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA

Two weeks ago, two teenagers were shot at the Delaware Valley Charter High School in Philadelphia. On the same day’s night, two gun murders occurred in Southwest Philadelphia, blocks and minutes apart.

And you may not have even heard about those incidents, because as a society, we are becoming numb. It is just “more of the same.” But for the victims and their loved ones, this is far from normal, acceptable or routine.

Three days later, I had the honor of joining City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and more than 100 residents of Southwest Philadelphia in a march against gun violence between the sites of the two murders.

As we took back those streets and, in the words of one of the pastors who addressed the crowd, “made the ground and atmosphere holy with our lives and will to live,” I was inspired.  

Even the mothers of the two most recent victims came to stand with their neighbors and proclaim that “enough is enough.” Their strength and the determination of their neighbors is shared by people all over Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh, a similar rally was held two days earlier to call for justice for a baby who was shot late last spring.  

More after the jump.
The recurring incidents must not dampen our resolve. We are right to keep fighting, especially to keep guns off our college and school campuses.

We are on the right path, and we will succeed.


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CeaseFirePA Executive Director Speaks to JSPAN Board


Last September, Sami Rahamim’s father was killed in a mass shooting in Minneapolis. Now, he’s doing everything he can to reduce gun violence and keep our communities safer.

He’s hoping his story will help inspire action from Congress — and from people like you.

Shira Goodman, Executive Director of CeaseFirePA, addressed the JSPAN Board of Directors at its February monthly meeting.

JSPAN Vice President Burt Siegel, who also chairs the organization’s Gun Control Policy Center, introduced the guest speaker. JSPAN is currently working in coalition with CeaseFirePA and other organizations to press our legislators to adopt better gun controls.

Goodman, an attorney, assumed the position of CeaseFirePA Executive Director in October 2012, after serving for three years as Deputy Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. During his introduction, Siegel referred to a recent piece in The Jewish Daily Forward reporting that the National Rifle Association had compiled a list of its “enemies,” and that the list “reads like a Jewish Who’s Who” and included individuals, organizations, media outlets and corporations that have provided support to anti-gun organizations, including the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith and Hadassah.

More after the jump.
Goodman began her presentation with a brief overview of CeaseFirePA’s mission, but quickly focused on immediate policy prescriptions including what’s “doable.” She stressed the importance of contacting representatives at both state and federal levels. Goodman reported that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane had recently announced that she had successfully negotiated and signed an agreement with the state of Florida to close the “Florida loophole,” which has allowed Pennsylvania gun owners to obtain nonresident permits from Florida to carry a concealed weapon in Pennsylvania.

Goodman also told the Board how important it is that the background check system for buying guns be improved. She stated that Pennsylvania is ahead of the curve in this regard because it is now sharing the names of people with a history of mental illness with the national background-check system that would prevent them from purchasing guns. However, she also noted that the state has failed to participate fully in the national background-check system. Goodman stated that it should also be mandatory that all lost and stolen guns be reported and that CeaseFirePA had been advocating for the passage of state legislation on lost-and-stolen guns for several years.

Goodman said that several pieces of legislation intended to reduce gun violence will be introduced shortly both in Washington and Harrisburg and that she would make sure that JSPAN is kept informed about these developments. She reminded the board that the vast majority of Americans support background checks and ways to limit easy access to firearms, and that it is important that JSPAN and other organizations as well as individuals tell elected officials to take steps to reduce gun violence.  

Fmr. Rep. Giffords At Gun Violence Hearing: “We Must Do Something”

— by David Streeter

Former Representative Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who was wounded in a mass shooting in 2011, delivered testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. Giffords said in her impassioned and moving opening statement:

Thank you for inviting me here today.

This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats, and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important.

Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.

It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you.