Archive for the ‘Summer of Hate’ category

The Sin of Standing Idly By

September 28, 2012

It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.”  It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews.  The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.  But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of  Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program.  It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.

This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah.  When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born.  Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.

Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies.  In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitz­vah speech.

Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns.  There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.  There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.  There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building.  This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem.  Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals.  There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil.  The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness.  In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities.  In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda.  In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life.  And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media.  They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.

Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide.  In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides.  This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population.  For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans.  The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe.  However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close.  In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower.  For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7.  We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.

While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control.  Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not.  According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010).  This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.

When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide.  It is suicide.  In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves.  Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them.  He was a manic depressive who went off his medication.  He owned a pistol to protect his business.  But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.

This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010).  When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm.  This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.

When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York.  Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence.  It touches our states and our communities as well.  According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois.  During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well.  But we do not need to turn to the statistics com­piled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community.  All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news.  In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death.  I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit.  But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.

Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur?  This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them.  Where does gun violence fit into any of that?

The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement.  Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins.  They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weak­nesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead.  As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin.  It is not mine.”  For they are ours.  For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens.  Why?  Because we create the nation.  We create it and we recreate it every single election day.  The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future.  So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it.  Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it.  Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.

The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties.   We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places.  My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place.  But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands.  Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community?  Of course it can!  For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado.  And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code.  In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”  This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.

This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already!  Too many have died and died need­lessly.”  So we have started to address this issue.  Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern.  An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times  But that is not where our efforts will end.  Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community.  Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps.  One thing seem certain.  We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community.  As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.

For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society.  We have condemned it.  We have mourned it.  But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it.  When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed.  The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate.  It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence.  We have to work for that goal as well.  We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction.  Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.

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Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”