Culture and Values


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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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

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 was originally published on the Rabbis Without Borders Blog of myjewishlearning.com

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/12/16/sadness-anger-and-love/

800px-Sandy_Hook_Memorial_12-26.jpg-largeOn Friday, December 14, 2012, I heard the news in the car. Shots were being fired in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Little information was yet known.

I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.

Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.

Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.

Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.

Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world?  Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?

So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.

We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.

The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary.  Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:

“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”

The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.

 

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

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/11/17/the-times-they-are-changing/

Jewish Star of David, at Magen David Jewish Congregation of Bradley Beach, New Jersey

It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance.  Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.

My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’

It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community.  Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise. Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.

Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with syn

agogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.

The times, they are a’changin,” Bob Dylan sang:

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin’.

Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.

Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible.  With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.

That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.

I will soon launch “Deborah’s Palm, A Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences.” I will also seek ways to collaborate with rabbis and communities within my area wherever possible. We are all in it together.  “The times, they are a’changin”.  The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.

 

 

 

 

Late yesterday afternoon as I sat in my living room quietly reading, I looked outside at the clear blue sky, happy for the autumn sunshine. But my thoughts turned to the Monday afternoon one year ago when we stayed home as Hurricane Sandy bore down on our area. Recalling the ordeal of downed trees and no electricity or phones in our house for the next two weeks, I was grateful for the help of friends and community.

hurricane sandy tree on house 2012

I remembered that we were inconvenienced, but not devastated. Just up the street from us two houses were crushed by fallen trees, as were others in surrounding neighborhoods, but our area was still largely intact. Coastal and shore areas in New Jersey and New York were not so lucky. Many of us have helped to clean up and rebuild after the destruction of homes, businesses, and some entire communities along the shore.  I wish I had been able to do more.

After the surge of memories began yesterday, I was struck by the under-mentioned impact of the hurricane on the poor.  Those with means could recover – many people left town to the comfort of unaffected areas. The privileged had insurance to cover losses, or the capacity to absorb the costs of repair. Yet the brunt of the suffering was borne by the elderly and infirmed and disabled, and those who didn’t have the insurance or the means to repair or rebuild.

Sandy was one more reminder that the divide between the rich and the poor in America is growing.  So too is the callousness of too many politicians who seem intent on enriching those already privileged while cutting off so many who can’t pay lobbyists or make huge campaign contributions.

Today, on this anniversary of the New York/New Jersey regions’ calamitous hurricane, I want to offer thanks for one politician who seems to be getting it right. As reported on the front page of the NY Times,Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net”, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio is defying the right wing in his state by finding ways to protect the poor. The article reports that “Few have gone further than Mr. Kasich in critiquing his party’s views on poverty programs, and last week he circumvented his own Republican legislature and its Tea Party wing by using a little-known state board to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor Ohioans under President Obama’s health care law.”  Kasich said,  “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

Righteousness is alive and well.  The neighbor-to-neighbor help after the storm, wonderful as it was, may not have been sufficient to relieve the suffering of the neediest for the long-term. But compassion can prevail and guide our society, if we demand it of our leaders and ourselves. In honor of those who have worked so hard to create a more just democracy, I pray that this compassion will spread, from governor to governor, from mayor to mayor, from community to community.

 

 

It can be tiring to hear snarky “jokes” about New Jersey from folks who think it is funny to make fun of the Garden State.  I think New Jersey is a great place to live, for many reasons.  Today I am not just happy to live in New Jersey, I am filled with pride. Today we are not the butt of jokes — this day was the first day of legal same-sex marriage.  Today was also the day that Governor Chris Christie dropped the appeal that would have once again challenged the rights of gays and lesbians to wed their beloveds in this great state.  Thank you, Governor Christie, for letting the people decide. And thank you, New Jersey, for arriving at this place of justice.

I was thrilled to officiate at the wedding of a New Jersey couple who rushed to wed in New York just after the defeat of DOMA in the summer.  They were anxious to sanctify their 3 decades plus as a family, and to reap the legal benefits that had been withheld for all this time.   Now the floodgates are opening for gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey — it’s wedding season!

Today there is much to celebrate.  To all of the couples who can now be counted as equals to their straight family and friends, accorded the same legal and cultural recognition that others have long enjoyed — we wish Mazal Tov — Congratulations!

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