Testimony to VT Senate January 30, 2018

Rabbi Amy Joy Small

Issue: Universal Background checks

Good Afternoon. I am Rabbi Amy Small, Senior Rabbi of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington.

On December 12, 2012, I was driving to an appointment around noon. As I turned the radio on, I heard the emergency announcement that there was a shooter in an elementary school in Sandy Hook, CT. My heart started pounding. Then I heard that the youngest classes were the site of a massacre. I was beside myself.  My close first cousin who lives in Sandy Hook, CT, was a second grade teacher in that area, though I didn’t know which school was his. I tried to call him. No answer.

I found the website for the school district, searching on my phone,. But the phone numbers were not listed. Nor were there faculty lists posted on the site.  It appeared as though parts of the site had been taken down immediately after the shooting (though I never did confirm if that was the case.)

It was a terrifying day until I heard from my cousin. Thank God he was fine. He teaches in a different school. He had to wade through more than 40 voicemail messages from family and close friends. We had all been holding our breath for hours until my cousin, who doesn’t use his phone while teaching, heard the news.

But our joy and relief were deeply tempered by the news of what had happened. 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down in their school classrooms.

There have been 200+ school shootings in our country since the murder of those pure, innocent souls in 2012. That’s about one a week. It was noteworthy that the shooting in Kentucky last week earned little space in the news cycle; our nation has become almost numb to this evil phenomenon.

But we will not be numb. We are determined to see our legislature enact common sense gun protection laws.

The relentless cycle of gun violence, including, but not exclusively, horrific mass shootings —  that often target young people —  is a deeply troubling phenomenon. We know that some common sense gun control laws could save many lives.

I do not know what would have stopped Adam Lanza from getting guns in Sandy Hook, CT. I know that some perpetrators of mass shootings would not have been stopped by mandatory universal background checks. I know that many of the gun killings in this country are not mass shootings. Clearly, guns kill in a variety of situations: in domestic violence – most often afflicting women, in shootings of law enforcement officials, in senseless small-scale murders, and in suicides. These gun violence events are more common, and they are absolutely epidemic.

The loophole in the background check system that allows individuals to easily transfer guns when they are not purchased in a gun shop is a problem that requires a solution.

Private-sale gun purchases in person and, more ubiquitously, online and at auctions or flea markets, are currently exempt from the background check requirements to which gun shops are bound. It is estimated that 22% of gun transfers take place without a background check.

Some states have begun to lead the effort to close this loophole. The results of state-legislated background check laws are stunning. In the 19 states which have enacted universal background check laws for handguns, there have been dramatic decreases in the incidence of killings by guns. 47% fewer women have been shot to death by their partners, 53% fewer law enforcement officers have been killed, and there have been 47% fewer suicides by gun.

We have a responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of would-be criminals. This is how we have a government of the people, and for the people.

I have heard the argument in Vermont that the current ease of transferring guns to friends and acquaintances is important to some Vermonters who value their individual rights. And I have heard the argument that individuals who acquire guns are the ones who must take responsibility; we can’t be responsible for them. The cost and inconvenience of applying for a background check is an infringement upon personal agency. If I am law-abiding and honest, why should I be required to take this wasteful step?

I am not moved by these arguments because they are based on an individualism that rubs against my moral commitment to care for my fellow human being. The Torah, at the opening of the Hebrew Bible, commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind; AND Do not profit by the blood of your fellow; AND Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:14,16,18)  In the depth of my being, I feel responsible for the health, well-being and safety of my neighbors. In fact, this is the first building block of our partnership with God in completing creation — to which we are called in my faith tradition. Further, it is our responsibility to respond to the Divine call to repair the world of it’s painful, hurtful ills.

My tradition teaches “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” which means that we are all responsible for each other. If I am inconvenienced in the process of exerting care to protect others from harm, so be it. I expect that my fellow Vermonters would do the same for me.

The command to be responsible for each other is taught in the context of a reflection on the domino effect of sin. If one sees another person at the verge of sinning, she/he has an obligation to step in and help. We are guarantors for one another. Indeed, the frequency and scope of senseless gun violence in this country demonstrate the domino effect of sin.  It is up to us to stop it.

How can any of us, even if we value our individualism above all else, be truly safe in a world so rife with senseless gun violence? We are all responsible for each other.

Further, I come to you as a leader of a faith community — Ohavi  Zedek Synagogue is the oldest and largest synagogue in Vermont. Sadly, houses of worship have become one more target in the scourge of mass shootings. Our community, like many, has felt it necessary to invest in significant security measures for our building. We are not being paranoid. My conversations with Christian and Muslim colleagues and our police reveal serious concerns regarding threats to our sacred spaces. What a tragedy that our children must learn what to do in the event of an intruder in our synagogue! We may not be able to prevent all violence by instituting universal background checks, but we can certainly reduce the threat. We owe this to our children and to communities.

I beseech you, help to keep all of us safer; enact universal background laws. This is what it means to lead. And for your leadership, I thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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After 30 years in the rabbinate, I tend to avoid focusing on the courage it took to pursue rabbinic education and launch a career in the congregational rabbinate. Besides, calling attention to myself in that way would be immodest.

But a #MeToo conversation with colleagues in Rabbis Without Borders, and a recent reconnection with old friends from the small group of past presidents of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, has reminded me what it has taken to be a rabbi and a woman. This comes by way of a conversation with female colleagues about legacy — how is the memory and history of the first generation of women rabbis to be preserved and how will the lessons we learned be conveyed?

In 1987, shortly after I was ordained at RRC, I moved to South Bend, Indiana for my first full time congregational job. I met most of the small Jewish community in the short time I was there; many came to our innovative programs though they were loyal members of the Conservative or Reform congregations in town. It was a fun time.

One of those guests brought me a precious gift — a rare photo from 1939. The man who gave it to me had escaped from Germany just in time, in 1939. Before he left Berlin, he took a picture of a very special woman named Regina Jonas, who had been ordained as a rabbi by German Reform rabbis in Berlin. I had never heard of Rabbi Jonas in my rabbinic training — and most people didn’t know her story. We had talked about our hero, Rabbi Sally Priesand, as the first woman rabbi. But Sally was ordained in 1972, and Rabbi Jonas was ordained in the mid-1930’s. She tragically died in Auschwitz, after helping to care for fellow Jews during the darkest hour of the Holocaust.

Not long after that, Rabbi Jonas’ story became publicized with the find of her papers in Berlin. Included in that was one formal photo of her. I owned the other photo — and I had tried to share it with the American Jewish Archives. But I did not receive a response to my letter of inquiry to them. Maybe the letter was somehow lost? I will never know.

When I received the photo, I had a negative and a copy made, and framed the copy for my office, where it has been over the years. As I read about burgeoning research about Rabbi Jonas by colleagues in recent years, I longed to reach out to share this treasure. But, mea culpa, life got in the way and I didn’t get to it. I imagined that by the time I would retire I’d make sure the photo would be saved by the appropriate museum or archive.

Today, talking with my old friend Rabbi Sandy Sasso in a long overdue conversation to catch-up, I learned that Sandy had taken a great interest in Rabbi Jonas and had been writing a book about her. So I told Sandy about the photo in my possession. She was amazed and excited, and this gave me the motivation to deal with the need to share this treasure with the world.

This time the American Jewish Archives enthusiastically responded right away, as did the director of the Jewish Women’s Archives. The photo will find its permanent home with them.

But I admit to having a moment’s pause — that photo has been in my hands for over 30 years. It was a precious gift, but even more — a part of my identity. I hesitated to arrange to give it away, even as I knew that I would eventually pass it along. I had a moment of a loss of nerve.

But today I remembered the courage it took for Sandy (RRC ’74) — the second American woman ordained as a rabbi — to establish herself. And I remembered the courage it took for me to do that thirteen years later, and the work that Sandy and I did together in those early years. I was inspired by the courage it took for Regina Jonas to pursue her rabbinic studies against the tide of rejection by the German Reform establishment, and ultimately the incredible courage she demonstrated caring for our people during the horrific time of the Holocaust.

Of course I can muster the small measure of courage it will take for me to release this precious photo so that it can be properly saved and shared. This will be a life-moment celebration of the accomplishments, power and inspiration of women who lead spiritual communities.

May Frau Rabbi Regina Jonas’s memory be an enduring blessing.

(I’ll post the photo soon, but first need to share with the archivists.)

 

December 17, 2015

As a community committed to tikkun olam, Jewish principles of justice and equality, we are gravely concerned by the increased incidence of anti-Muslim and Islamophobic rhetoric and acts of violence in our country. We are dismayed by the growing and blatant characterization of Muslims as “un-American”,  “terrorists”, and “violent”, not only because these broad representations are factually inaccurate and misleading stereotypes, but also because we know that ugly rhetoric can have dangerous consequences. We recall far too well when similar misrepresentations and hateful stereotypes became political rallying cries against Jews, and when solutions to the so-called problem of Jewish citizenry moved from political rhetoric to genocide.

 

While our local community has, thankfully, not seen hate crimes committed against Muslims as other parts of the nation have, we have seen the dissemination of Islamophobic literature in and around Burlington; we are not immune to Islamophobic vitriol, and we aim to work against it as committed Jews.

 

We stand alongside and behind our Muslim neighbors—alongside them as witnesses to our own history of persecution, and behind them as allies and supporters in the fight against anti-Muslim racism.

Ohavi Zedek Board of Directors

Senior Rabbi Joshua Chasan

Senior Rabbi Amy Joy Small

Joel M. Hoffman, PhD

Jewish Star Jack O'LanternWhen I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.

In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.

By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and…

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This post will be the 100th posting on Raviva.org.  Somehow, that feels like a milestone.

But this blog has also reached a more significant milestone — it is moving to a new site,  hosted within the website of the new Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences  http://www.Deborahs-Palm.org

I value all of you, my subscribers, and appreciate the conversation.

So please, check out the new Raviva home, and join me under Deborah’s Palm Tree.

http://www.deborahs-palm.org/blog/

I hope you will subscribe there.

For now, from this, Raviva’s first home, Shalom Uv’racha — Farewell and many blessings.

New posts will now be on Raviva’s new home site. I look forward to seeing you there!

Deborah's Palm Tree

Deborah’s Palm Tree

It’s Official!

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

is now offering Jewish wisdom in learning groups and programs in Northern New Jersey.

As I migrate the Raviva blog to my new site, here is one of the programs that Deborah’s Palm is offering — a weekly Sunday morning class “Your Jewish GPS” —  in South Orange, NJ.

Please visit:  www.Deborahs-Palm.org

The new site includes a page “Ask the Rabbi” — I’d love to hear from you!

This post was originally published on my page of the blog for Rabbis Without Borders on myjewishlearning.com:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2014/02/09/affluenza-really/

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This week’s stunning headline read “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in Rehab After He Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.”

The term “affluenza,” popularized in a 2001 a book,Affluenza, the All Consuming Epidemic (de Graff, Wann, and Naylor) is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

The headline for the “Affluenza defense” told a horrific story. It was the defense strategy for 16 year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people and severely injured two more while driving his father’s pickup truck with more than three times the legal limit for alcohol in his blood, along with valium. Driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 MPH zone, the teen was behind the wheel after stealing beer from a store, then taking 7 passengers with him on a drunken ride. Despite the stolen beer, the speeding, the underage drinking, etc.—a long list of offenses—the teen was sentenced to just 10 years of probation and mandatory rehabilitation. The rehab ordered by the judge will cost $450,000 a year, in what seems more a punishment of his parents than a consequence for their killer child.

News outlets reported that a “psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” An anguished man who lost his wife and daughter in the crash observed that Couch’s family’s money was able to pay for the expensive legal defense, and cover the rehab costs—and had this not been the case, the outcome surely would have been different.

They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them—everyone who defended this remorseless teenager—for defending his actions. This defense was a way of saying that he bears no blame. In fact, his facial expressions and body language all bore out an arrogant “you can’t touch me” detachment.

Should the parents be punished for raising a child with such a sense of entitlement, lacking boundaries and lessons about consequences – essentially without morals?  Maybe. If only the psychologist had tried to determine the causes for this kid’s malevolent self-absorption, perhaps the parents would bear some guilt. We know that parents can’t control the outcomes of their parenting, and some who try to do their best end up disappointed. Yet, this case does cry out for examination of the parents’ role in producing this outcome.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to raise a cultural conversation about parenting with boundaries and consequences—teaching our kids to have a moral compass?

Even more so, the consequences for the teen should have made a different point. If this is a child who was not taught to live with boundaries and consequences, then the court did the worst possible thing by repeating that very same pattern. Ideally, he should be taught that there are painful—and sometimes disastrous—consequences of bad judgment. Perhaps he won’t learn morality at this point, but we have a responsibility to try. And if nothing more, society should make sure he can’t hurt anyone else again.

How about a lifetime ban on his obtaining a driver’s license or purchasing or leasing any motor vehicle?

We owe it to the victims and to all of our children, to do better than this.