Issues in the News


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

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.

 

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.

 

 

Fighting Poverty With Faith Event

I was privileged to be a speaker today (11/30/11) at the NJ Fighting Poverty with Faith: “Working Together to End Hunger” event. This was an inspiring interfaith program held at the NJ State House in Trenton, which included voices of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu faith traditions. The call to action was eloquently and forcefully delivered by Rev. Lisanne Finston, of Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in new Brunswick. The growing ranks of the poor and near-poor are in great need of our advocacy, activism and leadership. It is not just about feeding the hungry — though, of course it is first about that — it is about a society that helps those who are poor to find their back to independence.

The following were my remarks at the event today:

An editorial in the NY Times last week asked the question: “What is it like to be poor?”   Thankfully, most of us do not know how this feels from firsthand experience. But it is very close to home: “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.” (NY Times editorial 11/23/11)

Jewish sacred texts struggle with the reality of poverty – throughout the ages our sages have wondered why there are rich and there are poor.  A midrash, an interpretive lesson from the text, commenting on Ecclesiastes 7:14, teaches:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him… But why does God create both poor people and rich people?   In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other.’ (Pesikta deRav Kahana.)”

As Tevye said in the Jewish folk tale, Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no sin to be poor, but it’s not great honor either.” We have mutual responsibility for each other, whether rich or poor.  We share this society – and through the sacred obligation of what Jewish tradition calls “tzedakah” – which means “righteous action” but is commonly translated as “charity,” we can change it.  Jewish religious law mandates the creation and sustenance of a just, righteous, and compassionate world.  We live for the greater good of all of us.

The growing divide between the rich and the poor in America is more than a crisis. It is a moral failing of our society. 49.1 million Americans are below the poverty line and 51 million more are considered to be “near poor” — with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

“In 2010, just over half of the country’s nearly 17 million poor children lived in households that reported at least one of four major hardships: hunger, overcrowding, failure to pay the rent or mortgage on time or failure to seek needed medical care.”  The consequences of these conditions can be staggering, potentially impacting a family for generations.

The inequality in our country is a travesty. As wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, poverty spreads and suffering grows.

The quintessential work on the nature of suffering in the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Job. A midrash – an interpretive lesson on this book, imagines the following conversation between God and Job:

“God said to Job, “Which would you prefer – poverty or suffering?” Job responded, “Master of the Universe—I will take all of the sufferings in the world as long as I don’t become poor,  for if I go to the marketplace and don’t have any money to buy food, what will I eat?”… This shows us that poverty is worse than all of the other sufferings in the world. (Sh’mot Rabbah 31:12)

We are taught that we are no more worthy than anyone else, and our neighbors who are hungry deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.  The Torah commands us to care for the needy, leaving the corners of our fields, that those who are hungry may come and eat. “…Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11)

We share a responsibility to care for the needy and to help them to rise up out of poverty. This central spiritual value is a moral imperative.

As people of faith, we know that humility, kindness, and generosity shape a compassionate society. We are committed to working on behalf of those who are struggling. We can’t do it alone. This is the purpose of community, and indeed the value of government – to care for the welfare of its citizens.  There is no loftier or more essential purpose to being “One nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”   Together we shall lead the movement to fight poverty with faith, to become what we are created to be: caring human beings sharing our world in mutuality and loving-kindness.

To read more about the Fighting Poverty with Faith campaign:

http://fightingpovertywithfaith.com/f2/

To read my Fighting Poverty with Faith blog post on the Rabbis Without Borders Blog: 

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/tag/thanksgiving/

Do you remember the day of September 10, 2001?   I recall that day in utterly clear focus, as though it was a lead-up to the traumatic events about to unfold the next day.  I was at home on the morning of 9/11 when the world was shattered. We all remember that terrible morning of 9/11.  But can we also recall, in our minds and our hearts, what it was like for us before that day?

It’s cliché to say that everything changed on 9/11, but the day before, even the moment before the first plane hit, we didn’t realize that we were in suspended animation before the fall. We fell from our sense of certainty, possibility, comfort and safety.  Everything we had worried about, stressed over, worked on, planned for, even dreamed of, was suddenly recast.  Many things that mattered a lot suddenly didn’t matter any more. Our priorities were shifted, our emotional realities recalibrated.

We are still living in that shadow. I had been in Israel in August 2001, in the throes of the second intifada, and just after the infamous bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in downtown  Jerusalem.  It sadly had become common for  Israelis to navigate their everyday lives with fear as a constant presence in the back of everyone’s minds. With heavy security guarding public places, it was understood that this was necessary, but emotionally, this situation takes its toll over time. So when, after 9/11, NY Penn station started to feel like Jerusalem, with a strong military presence,  I recognized this reality and knew about the stress it generated.

We became jumpier, more ready to assume something dreadful had happened with any loud booming noise, any accident that caused damage to public places. We went about our lives in accustomed ways, but got testy with each other from time to time as a kind of collective post traumatic stress had gripped our communities and towns and even our country.

In the ensuing years, three wars later, our nation has managed fear by attacking perceived enemies. So many lives have been lost or damaged or traumatized in the process. Yet we still fear the next terrorist around the corner.

We have demonized the “other,” Muslims in particular, and have devolved into a society of blame, criticism and “us” against “them” politics that disregards the common good. Painfully, it’s all about fear — fear of loss, fear of change, fear of hurt, and fear of life itself.

Our economic woes are not disconnected from this either. We salved our fears by spending beyond our means, often with our very homes on the line. And when the market tanked in 2008, we had to face new fears for our economic futures. Will there be money for retirement, for staying in our homes? Will there be jobs for us and for our children? These are frightening questions and challenges.

In these difficult 10 years we have still pursued life. We have brought babies into the world, celebrated weddings, b’nai mitzvah, graduations, and other joys families and friends share. We have enjoyed holidays and community celebrations that have shaped our lives.

In many recent conversations I have been hearing a lot of fear — fear about our futures, personally and collectively.  Each of these encounters leaves me yearning for Rosh Hashanah, for a time for reflection, renewal, and reorienting our lives. We have the great gift of a spiritual tradition that helps us to focus on the blessings of our lives and the blessing of life itself. Our ancestor Jacob/Yisrael was plagued by his fears in his journeys, yet he dreamed of angels, awakening to exclaim “How awesome is this place!” He crossed the threshold from fear to faith. We can too.

This September 11 we will mourn the 10 year anniversary of that terrible day and honor the memory of those we lost that day. Now, ten  years later, we seek to understand our lives in its wake. 9/11 occurs during the final Jewish month of Elul, as we prepare for the teshuvah/turning of Rosh Hashanah. In honor of all those who lost their lives to the violence of 9/11 and the years since then, we have an opportunity to affirm life with gratitude and hope. It is from this place of hope that we can find healing from fear, and faith in our future that will direct who we are and who we shall become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every day this week, every email I exchanged, the opening line was consistent: “How did the storm effect you? Are you ok?” Our area of New Jersey, west of New York City, certainly felt the storm. Some of the most persistent and damaging flooding in Northern New Jersey has been in our area. While  my family feels extremely lucky to have not lost power and not suffered flooding, many of our friends and members of our community have not been so lucky. Some, now four days post-storm, are still without power, and some are out of their homes so they can get by. Many stories of flooded basements abound, and some people’s businesses have been swamped with water and mud.

We are all concerned for each other. We have helped each other in a number of ways and we are anxious to know how we can be of service to others whose needs have not yet been apparent.   It is a time when the best in us rises to the surface and submerses all the negative or apathetic behaviors of ordinary and everyday times.

Along the way, we have now punctuated our sharing of storm stories with huge doses of concern for those whose lives have been more severely impacted than ours.  Folks in upstate NY and Vermont who have endured absolute catastrophe are in our hearts. We await news on how we can help them, and in the meantime, our prayers are with them.

“How did the storm effect you? Are you ok?” This week’s salutation is a reminder of our connectedness and interdependence. I pray that it’s expression of caring extends well beyond this week.

It’s the second day of Elul, a time to reflect on how our ordinary and everyday can be as filled with concern for others as this week has been.

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