In the wake of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I was asked to write about my ongoing gun violence prevention work and whether it has a connection to the Jewish community. The question got me thinking—although I was bat mitzvahed and even confirmed, I don’t go to temple often. For me, this work is my connection to Judaism. Doing tikkun olam is how I pray, and the broader Jewish community has been instrumental in the work.
My work in gun violence prevention began days after the tragedy in Newtown in 2012. My congregation, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, held a Shabbat reflection to talk about the horrible events and connect and heal. At that reflection, it became clear that people wanted to do more—we simply could not “stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.” Some people sent letters to the families of those killed at Sandy Hook; others sent letters of support to the families of those impacted by gun violence nearly weekly in our own Boston communities—deaths that didn’t receive the spotlight of Newtown but were no less devastating to the families and community impacted. And about a third of us decided we wanted to try to change public policy. I thought of my own young son, and the world he would inherit, and joined this third group.
Motivated by our common desire to heal the world, we formed Temple Beth Elohim Congregants to Prevent Gun Violence and educated ourselves about the issues. We next made the decision to join the newly formed Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. The Coalition was convened by JALSA (Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action), Stop Handgun Violence and long-time advocate (and States United to Prevent Gun Violence board member) Angus McQuilken. Founding members of the Coalition included both religious and secular groups, urban and suburban, all dedicated to passing gun violence prevention legislation. Founding members included First Church in Cambridge, Temple Israel of Boston, Temple Emunah in Lexington, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Moms Demand Action MA, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and League of Women Voters, among many, many others. Though we were from different backgrounds, we were all motivated by our common desire to heal the world (although of course not everyone described it that way).
Together, we were the engine that drove the passage of the landmark 2014 gun violence prevention bill in Massachusetts, a bill that expanded background checks, gave law enforcement more effective ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who pose a serious risk of harm, and began a landmark data collection effort to better understand where crime guns are coming from. We generated hundreds of calls and emails to legislators, held rallies, attended hearings at the State House and beyond, organized lobby days, wrote letters to the editor—in sum, we organized a widespread, very successful grassroots campaign. We have already heard ways in which this legislation has saved lives.
It has now been five years, and I have long been one of the leaders of the Coalition. The Coalition continues to grow and advocate for better policies and primary prevention efforts. The original members of the Temple Beth Elohim group have stayed together, worked hard, built a community and continue to hold me up every day. I could not do this work without my Jewish community.
While I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished, there is still so much more to be done, both in Massachusetts and nationally, and so our work continues. In Massachusetts, we are working to pass an extreme risk protective order bill that would help family members remove guns from a home when a person has been determined by the courts to pose an extreme risk to themselves or others. Nationally, we are working to ensure that the gun industry and its allies in Congress are not able to further weaken the laws that are currently in place.
Together we are stronger, but there is more to do and we can always use more help. This work is both frustrating and incredibly fulfilling. But continuing this work is how I pray. I am so appreciative to my clergy and congregation for their support, and to the broad community of organizations, both faith-based and secular, that have devoted themselves to this work. And while the work is never done, as the tragedy in Las Vegas and the continuing deaths in Boston make all too apparent, we understand that “we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are [we] free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). If we can save even one more life, our efforts are worth it.
As one of my fellow congregants at Temple Beth Elohim said when we began this effort, “When the book on how gun violence was stopped is finally written, the role of communities of faith will be the opening chapter.” Let us work to make it so.
Please visit mapreventgunviolence.org to learn more, join us or support our ongoing work.
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