In 1903 in Kishinev, which was then part of Russia, there was a terrible pogrom, an anti-Jewish riot. During that riot, 49 Jews were killed and more than 500 were injured. In its aftermath, the Jewish community in the town of Odessa sent a well known Zionist and poet, Haim Nachman Bialik, to Kishinev who then wrote a poem in Hebrew entitled “On the Slaughter.” From this poem, there is a very famous line which says, “Cursed be he who says, “Avenge! Vengeance such as this, vengeance for the blood of a small boy.””
A few months later, Bialik wrote another poem in an entitled “In the City of Slaughter.” Instead of blaming everyone else for what occurred, Bialik chose to blame the Jews themselves. Bialik had heard tales of Jewish men who had been passive observers while their women were being raped, abused and murdered. In this poem he writes, “Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!” In this critique, Bialik was encouraging the Jewish community to look at its own responsibility for what had occurred before blaming others.
I was thinking about these poems in relation to the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Instead of blaming others, let us as a nation need to take a very close look at ourselves and ask what we can do to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Certainly, one aspect of this tragedy which has torn the collective soul of America, is that twenty victims were very young children. It is so difficult to comprehend how such a calamitous event could happen in the United States of America. We as Jews understand what it means to lose children. Of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, one and one half million of those were children. When they undressed to enter the gas chamber at Auschwitz, Jewish parents would try to hide small infants in their clothes. The SS would go through these clothes and throw the babies directly into the gas chamber on top of those who were already there. Yes, we Jews understand well the savageness and insanity of one who kills children!
Perhaps because of this, our congregation in Greensboro hosted a wonderful interfaith memorial ceremony. Over 300 people attended from more than twenty congregations – Christians, Muslims and Jews were all well represented. We came together to REMEMBER what happened, to MOURN emotionally and spiritually through adopting the victims and embracing them as members of our family, and to COMMIT to all children that they may learn and grow in safety and security to become all that God means for them to be.
We recognized that the word “Responsibility” is made up of two words – “response” and “ability.” At this time, we need to respond to the best of our ability. Services like ours are lovely and meaningful, but we are aware that they are of little use if they are not accompanied by an effort to improve mental health care in this country and to implement sensible gun control legislation.
The fact that over 30,000 people die each year from gun violence is staggering. As Jews, the value of human life is a holy. We recognize that we are all created in God’s image. We take seriously the verse in Leviticus which states, “Love your Neighbor as yourself.”
The Bushmaster gun used in Newtown, Connecticut can shoot 30 bullets on the semi-automatic setting in around 15 seconds. With the illegal black market modification to the automatic setting, the Bushmaster would be able to fire these 30 bullets in less than 3 seconds. There are magazines available on line which hold up to 100 bullets. A recent survey said of the twelve deadliest mass murders in US history, six have occurred since 2007. The frequency of these shootings is increasing and during President Obama’s term of office, there have been four mass murders.
Much of the religious community has released statements seeking sensible gun control legislation to include any or all of the following:
1. Background checks
2. Registration of all guns
3. Closing the gun show loophole
4. Ban of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity clips
5. Reinstitution of the Assault Weapons Ban
6. Prohibition on gun ownership for felons or the mentally ill
I have fired semi-automatic weapons, specifically M16′s and Galil rifles, when I served as a combat soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. I have also shot handguns similar to a Glock. These weapons, whose availability is opposed by national police organizations, have nothing to do with gun rights for people desiring to hunt. Weapons like these would have been prohibited under the Assault Weapons Ban which expired in 2004. I am not sure if you, reading this, have fired weapons such as these – but those who have appreciate their immense power and why their availability should be strictly limited.
We must also note the importance of supporting and expanding mental health care. Cutting mental health care services as part of any agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff is extremely short sighted. Our approach to this problem needs to be both holistic and comprehensive.
Our children understand this very well. On the Sunday after the shooting, we gathered middle and high school students together for a discussion concerning the Sandy Hook tragedy. After allowing them to express their feelings, we asked them what they felt needed to be done. The agenda and the content of the discussion was entirely student driven and determined. I am so proud of them and can only pray that in this environment, the voices of our young people will be heard. After all, it is their future which is at stake. Their answers were as follows:
- Improve school security personnel
- Media should focus more on victims than the perpetrator
- Strong gun control legislation, especially on assault weapons and high capacity magazines
- Comprehensive lockdown drills in schools
- Support for those who may have mental challenges
- Action against bullying
- Focus on household gun safety, lock away firearms separately from bullets
- Examine the role of video games and movies that glorify violence
At our Interfaith Memorial service, we prepared a PowerPoint of the Sandy Hook Elementary children who had been murdered. The slides were shown at the service as the choir sang two verses of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” As I looked at the faces of these children, I felt that each one of them was so gorgeous, so beautiful –. Tears came to my eyes.
I have been working with young people for thirty-eight years. Each time I see the faces of the children lost in the Newton, Connecticut massacre, I see such expressions of the presence of God. Each expression is also one of a future denied. Let us not blame others. It is now OUR RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that this will never, ever happen again. The only way to repair the soul of our nation is to encourage our legislators to act responsibility concerning both sensible gun control and proper mental health funding.
Rabbi Fred Guttman is a member of the Commission on Social Action and is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.