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.







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!

I remember my first dog very well – she was a beautiful Collie named Blaze. I recall being 4 years old, playing with her on the floor of our apartment with my brother Hal, of blessed memory. It’s been a long time, and the memory is fuzzy, so I can’t say why I remember her so well, but I do.

Dogs are that way. They come into our lives as pets, and grow into our hearts as family. It’s funny how that works, since they can’t talk – coming from a very verbal Jewish culture, I suppose this is a reminder that words can only express a part of our life experience. It’

We tried to look happy for the camera

Our beloved Corgi Blanche

s better that dogs can’t talk; one of their gifts to us is their quiet, non-verbal communication.

We have had two Corgis, sisters, a year apart, for 10 years. The older dog was Blanche, who was just 12. She had been my in-laws’ pet, and for them, the last of a 20 year relationship with Corgis, as avocational breeders. We promised to love and care for her on their behalf. Blanche made it easy – she was a very soft-coated, gentle little girl who loved to cuddle. She’d make friends with everyone who offered her an ounce of attention.

To keep up with the dogs’ needs and our busy lives, we had installed a dog door in our kitchen when they came to live with us. Even though we were sure to walk them around the block twice daily (to be fair – a responsibility borne mostly by my husband and shared by my kids) the dogs have had the freedom to go into the dog run on their own any time. Blanche often used this for a chance to be protective of us; we were always calling her back in the house when she barked at some perceived threat. She always obeyed and sat by our side quietly, an obedient, loyal friend. Even with her darting out into the dog run to make her presence known, she was anything but threatening. A gentler soul you could never meet.

In the course of an overly busy life, I haven’t thought much about what it means to have a pet. While I was always happy for their company when I had the time, I was glad to know the dogs were walked and fed and brushed. Blanche became my teacher. During the last two years, she developed a neurological condition known to Corgis, an illness that her mother had endured until her death. It produced a progressive loss of the strength and control in her rear legs. She has stumbled on the stairs, sometimes falling backward down several, increasingly having moments when her rear legs just fell out from under her while walking. It pulled on our heartstrings. Over time, she required more and more care and attention. But in the way of her breed, she never complained – no whining or whimpering, no crying, no distancing. She would still love to sit in our laps and try to lick our faces, showing great pleasure from the attention showered on her. She was just pure love.

If only more people had such an ability to appreciate what they have as she did.

A couple of days ago my daughter came home from college and saw Blanche try, but completely fail, to climb the stairs. In a split level house, that is very limiting. Blanche kept trying, refusing to give in to her condition. My daughter was heartbroken – here was this sweet dog who asked nothing of us, trying to remain independent.

And so it was that on the next morning as I walked both dogs, that Blanche lost the use of her legs during the walk and didn’t complain, she simply let them drag along the road. When I looked down at her to see why she was moving so slowly, I saw two bloodied paws, scraped raw along the street. I picked her up, carried her home and cleaned her. The whole way home she licked my face, grateful for my help, and she cuddled close, ever a loving companion.

She was now completely crippled. We decided that we could not bear to have her suffer any longer, and we arranged for the vet to euthanize her today.

I admit that my busy life has made me a lesser friend to my pets than they are to me. Blanche didn’t hold it against me. She was always at the ready to be by my side if I could sit with her. And when she became crippled, when I came home covered in blood from her wounded paws, and she only just wanted to be held close, I felt very sad for all the missed opportunities to spend time with her.

My husband has always spent much more time with the dogs and has taken the greatest responsibility for them. And so he had a picture in his mind that the day would come, in the increasingly close future, when he would take Blanche to the vet for her final goodbye, and he would stay with her as she came to rest. But as it happened, Blanche lost her ability to walk precisely on the day when my husband was having hip replacement surgery. He did not get to say goodbye to her. I was the one to say goodbye for all of us. It was very sad. She was such a sweet dog, such an unconditionally loving friend and member of our family.

Why did I remember my dog Blaze all these decades later? Because dogs bring out the best in us, bringing love and companionship to our complicated lives. Blaze brought me joy as a very young child. Blanche brought love to our home amid our hectic lives.

How fortunate we are to live in a world filled with loving family and friends; a world where gentle animals can become part of our lives, filling the voids we didn’t know we had. They teach us about love and loyalty and we are the richer for it.

Blanche, may her memory be for a blessing.

I really don’t mean to be snoop, but I couldn’t help but notice the activity outside my neighbor’s house yesterday. We were enduring yet another snowstorm and I was set to spend the day at home. It happens that my treadmill is adjacent to our front window overlooking our neighbor’s house across the street. During my midmorning workout, a furniture delivery truck pulled up and stayed for a long while (assembling and moving things around, I imagined.) I was reminded of the baby announcement that this neighbor had just sent us, celebrating the arrival of their third child. So while when nearly all of us were safely nesting at home to avoid slippery roads, I thought of how life-affirming it was that on this day especially they were embellishing their home to accommodate a growing family.

I couldn’t help but smile again when the chimney sweep van pulled up to their house a short while later. Clearly, some things were just too important to wait for the end of the storm. Comfortable furniture, a fire in the hearth, and everyone home – what a warming thought. I thought: if only we could all enjoy the loveliness of nesting with our family, with nowhere to go, being home together.

So many of us spend our days rushing from one thing to the next; from obligations to chosen activities. We fill our days and evenings here in suburbia, and it can be exhausting and depleting. We don’t get enough snow days.

I was thrilled when we had our first snow day of the season two weeks ago. (I have to say that I am so lucky that my husband does the snow clearing for us most of the time, freeing me to enjoy being completely snowed in.) I have a “Pavlovian” response whenever I hear of impending snow storms – I think of making soup. My ritual is to head for the market before the storm to get lots of vegetables, and I spend the first part of every snow day in the kitchen cooking. On that first snow storm I was so enthusiastic in the kitchen that we just finished consuming the bountiful leftovers.

Thinking about the comfort of furniture, a fireplace, and fresh homemade soup, I realized that snow days are much like Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. In Jewish custom, we have the opportunity for replenishment every seven days. The Shabbat is holy space and time, an opportunity to “be,” rather than having to get somewhere or get something done. Its beauty is in the consciousness-shifting experience of standing still in time; with nothing to produce or create, we have a chance to remember and enjoy what is most important to us. Cherishing home, family, good food, friends, and community – ah, this is as restful and relaxing as an evening in front of the fireplace.

As I peered at the furniture truck across the street my mind wandered to the rooms of my own house, and the myriad memories of sharing life, love and joy with family and friends. We have shared much grief here too, but we have been comforted by a very loving community. What a blessing to have a house that is home. Sharing Shabbat around the dinner table reminds us of the millions of people who do not have homes or food or families or friends. With the time and space to truly experience appreciation, we are reminded to help those who are less fortunate and to repair the world of its terrible imbalances.

Snow days are great, but they’re not Shabbat. I chose to not wear my watch yesterday, and reveled in the “shabbesdik” (Shabbat-like) experience of being home for the day. But I did maintain a very full day of work, complete with appointments by phone, email and Skype. I know that Shabbat is more than this – it is a day to shut off the responsibilities of the rest of the week. Having a snow day reminded me of how important it is to hold onto and cherish the spiritual practice of Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom – Sabbath greetings of peace, everyone!

There is a Jewish custom of reciting Psalms during times of illness and distress. Some people find the recitation, rhythmic and lyrical, to be comforting in Hebrew, even if they don’t understand the words. Others read the Psalms in English, and for that there are various translations and commentaries to lift up the power of those ancient words of prayer. Others find comfort from the inspiration within songs and chants of selections from certain Psalms. I recall singing the23rd Psalm repeatedly during my mother’s illness before her death. “My cup overflows,” I chanted, and felt relief from my pain.

My family had a rough year in 2009, with the untimely and tragic passing, first of my husband’s sister of pancreatic cancer, and then of my own brother of a heart attack. Their deaths were less than six months apart. Missy had just turned 55, Hal was 53. We have had too much need for recitation of Psalms for healing. Nevertheless, I am grateful for having had inheritance of my ancestors’ words during these trying times. At moments both planned and spontaneous, the ancient words of Psalms have soothed and revived me.

There are times when it feels necessary and important to analyze the theology of the Psalms, wrestling with the meaning of suffering and God’s role. How could these tragedies happen? How could such terrible things happen in our world? Sometimes there are just no answers; the only place to go is to seek comfort and healing. In those moments, the timeless sentiments of our ancient text bring our hearts light in the darkness.

Last week our family stood at the grave of my sister-in-law to dedicate the headstone. It was very jarring and painful to see her name on the marker. It’s been about 11 months, but this visible sign of her absence made it real in a more stark way. It was a sad gathering on very cold and blustery February morning. Huddled together for warmth and comfort during the brief unveiling ceremony, there was something equally as shared as it was individual. Each person had his/her own grief. I shivered and tried to stem the faucet coming from my nose, and then looked up beyond the grave to the sky. It was a crystal clear sharp blue. In that moment, I felt the words of Psalm 121 come to my throat: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the UNSEEN ONE, maker of heaven and earth.” אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי. עזרי מעם ה” עושה שמים וארץ

I was overcome with a feeling of calm and warmth. In kinship with all who have experienced loss, all who shared words of comfort, all who have recited the ancient words of Psalms, I was reminded that life, fragile as it is, is still a sacred gift. In honor of the memory of our beloved family members whom we have lost, we are renewed in our purpose to live meaningfully. That exquisite blue sky is a reminder of beauty of life and a reminder to hold it close and cherish it.

I admit that I like the celebration of Valentine’s Day. I am not as much of a cheerleader for other American cultural observances with pagan and Christian origins. Take Halloween, for example. I have all kinds of issues with the way it has evolved since I was a kid. It’s a question of values. But let’s save that for another day. Valentine’s Day celebrates love – who could argue with that as a value, right?

So, even as I bask in the glow of a lovely, romantic dinner with my husband – he cooked this time, his delectable (Grandma’s) Hungarian roast chicken and delicious ratatouille and pear sauce for dessert – I want to note my issues with this American “love holiday.” Here are my concerns:

First, while I feel very lucky to have a happy marriage and a wonderful spouse, I am very aware that so many people do not enjoy loving and successful relationships with a significant other. I know, I was there, suffering through a failing marriage before finding a way out of it. Valentine’s Day wasn’t fun in those days – and it was a reminder of a sad and painful reality. It can also be depressing for singles who wish they were in loving relationships. And since it is the American way in our culture to inundate all of us – for days or even weeks — with the constant reminders of the “holiday,” the loneliness and pain can be a kind of slow-motion torture for the broken-hearted.

What about singles who are content with their lives and don’t accept the cultural message that they must find the “love of their life” to be complete? How alienating it must be at this time of year when the clear message is that everyone should find a “valentine” – thus communicating that something is wrong with them when they don’t – or don’t feel the need?

Does it make sense that a holiday that celebrates love can cause so many people so much discomfort, alienation and pain?

Another apparent conflict of values is the way that this annual celebration of romantic love pours so much attention on ONE day – as if we would only show love and devotion and appreciation to our lovers once a year. Is this to suggest that we don’t need to dote on our beloveds any other time of year? I know, that’s an overstatement, but not entirely. What does our culture teach us about how to sustain loving relationships with constant if not regular displays of devotion, honor, and gratitude?

Our popular culture is more consumed with gossip about infidelity and the drama of relationship challenges. That sells magazines and movies. But another culture – Jewish culture – has a different manner of dealing with relationships. Jewish tradition assigns a regular ritual of devotion to loving partners. On Shabbat, the Sabbath, as the sun sets and the candles are lit, representing Divine light and holy sparks, it is customary for a husband to recite Eshet Chayil, A Woman of Valor, from Proverbs 31, to his wife. Today, egalitarian blessings have either replaced or supplemented this traditional poem, and can be used by either partner in a loving relationship, regardless of gender. It is a sacred moment of showing affection and devotion. Set in a quiet space of time within the home, it honors loving relationship without beating it over the heads of the love-lost and single.

My husband’s roast chicken is, for sure, our favorite special dinner. But he doesn’t only make it on Valentine’s Day, and he and I both are attentive to the need to show devotion in big and small ways every day. Shabbat is a weekly chance to make sure we got it right. Now that’s a Valentine’s Day I can really endorse.

During my seventh grade class “Ask the Rabbi” session last week, one of the kids asked what I would do if I was not a rabbi. I quickly answered, “I’d bake muffins.” The kids were amused. I explained that I inherited my love for nurturing with food from both of my grandma’s and I would so enjoy the simple opportunity to just take care of people with delicious muffins. I have enjoyed baking since I was their age, and so the fantasy of getting a chance to bake all day, creatively thinking of new recipes, ah, well that feels like heaven!

In truth, I have come to use the refrain, “I’d bake muffins” as my expression of exasperation when I have a rough day. I recently came home late from a long and challenging day, and the first thing I said to my husband was, “In my next life, I am just going to bake muffins!” He laughed, lovingly supporting me as he always does and I was ready to let go of the day.

My husband Bob and I used to share a fantasy about our retirement: we’d buy a Bed & Breakfast in Vermont, where Bob would raise Alpacas and build furniture. I’d bake muffins and run retreats for rabbis, who need a break from their hectic lives. Of course, since the fantasy is intended to imagine a simpler life, it is just a fantasy. Owning a B&B is hard work.

Last week I went to a local tailor to alter a jacket. He is an older Italian immigrant who has a small storefront shop in our suburban town. He asked me for a deposit in cash – he doesn’t take credit or debit cards. I told him that I don’t carry much cash and didn’t have the money, but he was kind to me. He told me he is a simple old man, running a simple business. I told him I admire that he has a chance to run a simple business. (I thought, “I’d love to be just a tailor!”) With that, I unleashed something – he vented that he has such a hard life; I wouldn’t want to live his life, he told me. “Why?” I asked. “I have no life!” he exclaimed, “I run this shop all by myself and I have to work terrible hours and I never get a break.” I thought I was listening to myself at my exhausted lows for a moment. Then he said, “If I had a job with a boss, it would be so much better.” I chuckled. “If only,” I thought.

Many of us live complicated lives that can be exhausting. But simplicity may be an elusive fantasy. Maybe it is not just about doing fewer things, but about the way we construct our lives. Do we leave ourselves time for replenishment and renewal? It is not enough to do what we love doing. Just as my tailor loves what he does but hates the schedule, I love what I do and also need to find time to be “off.” How wonderful to just bake muffins sometimes. My tailor and I really do have a lot more in common that I thought.

Next Page »