The Future Is Bright - Let’s Make it Safe | Congregation Beth Am

The Future Is Bright - Let’s Make it Safe

By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on
February 16, 2018

The New York Times.  Wednesday February 8th, 2018. “He was a long-shot candidate with no prior political experience, and so very few people noticed when Aaron Coleman announced he was running for governor of Kansas last July. Those he told did not take him seriously — he could not even vote in the last election.

But in Kansas, there are no minimum age restrictions to run and at 17, Mr. Coleman is one of six teenagers who have announced their bids in the last year to become chief executive of the state...

In a political climate where many are disillusioned, Mr. Coleman, of Overland Park, thought running would be an opportunity to get young people interested in politics and “to strengthen the youth vote.”  Mr. Coleman thought he might be able to drum up some support for his progressive ideas despite an unusual political profile — or maybe because of it….

Really if you look at it, our generation is getting screwed over so bad,” said Mr. Coleman, who said he is working on his G.E.D. and taking classes at a local community college. “This could educate voters. They might say, if I could run, then you could run. It’s really just about getting more people involved.”

I don’t live in Kansas, yet I’m intrigued.  I’m not sure I’d vote for a 17 year old, but why not?  Certainly if he or she went to Beth Am, I’d cast my ballot for them - because, I know, at least here, the future is bright.  I’m feeling that way after a weekend in Washington DC - ironic, I know.  The news out of DC is generally infuriating - scandals, stagnation, ineptitude, and inequality.

Perhaps, the ultimate tragedy it that for so many, passion has been replaced with pettiness.  Passionate leaders with strong moral compasses become ineffective and impotent.  Certainly, the leaders and the debates coming out of DC are not stories of passion - rather they are stories of partisan bickering or political one-ups-manship.  One of my teachers Rabbi Larry Hoffman, theorizes that this lack of enthusiasm and general apathy is contagious and has crept into the Jewish world.  He calls it the “generation of the passion-less” as many of the inspiring movements of previous generations fade from mind and heart.  250,000 people marching in Washington for Soviet Jewry happened in 1987.  Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 23 years ago. 

Thankfully last weekend inspired. You see, last weekend, 25 members of our Confirmation class spent 4 days in Washington DC as participants on the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism’s l’taken seminar  These talented, bright and passionate 15 and 16 year olds, spent the weekend learning about the intersection of Judaism and politics.  They attended workshops on specific policy issues ranging from international human rights to voting access.  They prayed with nearly 500 other Jewish High Schoolers from across the country Florida to Connecticut, Los Angeles to Philadelphia.  Our 10th graders visited the Holocaust Museum, the MLK and Jefferson Memorials, the Supreme Court and ate dozens of cupcakes in Georgetown.

The culmination of the L’taken weekend is a day on Capitol Hill walking the halls of congress and  lobbying our members of Congress on issues central to the Reform Movement and the lives of our High Schoolers.  It’s a passion filled day.  Each of our students works with a partner to lobby on a specific bill - blending both personal stories and Jewish tradition - in a persuasive speech delivered directly to the offices of our representatives.  The conclusion of the talk is a direct ask to take action on a specific piece of legislation.  

One of the bills three of our students, Eli, Ellie and Max, lobbied against was voted on in the floor of the House this week, HR - 620,  a bill which would significantly weaken the American with Disabilities Act.   During this month where Beth Am focuses on inclusion - it was terrible to see this bill pass the house.  Thankfully, after listening to our students,  Congresswoman Eshoo voted against the bill, however unfortunately another one of our local representatives,  Congresswoman Jackie Spiere voted in favor of the bill.   Our synagogue will continue to monitor and oppose this bill as it makes it way to the Senate.  We’ll be sure to include it future action alerts in our Tzedek network.     

Tragically, this Monday, our students also lobbied on Senate Bill - 1923, also known as the Background Check Completion Act.   We were on Capitol Hill two days before the shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.   The shooting that left 17 people dead, a community grieving and a nation devastated, while gutless lawmakers offered thoughts and prayers. 

This is what two of our students said: 

“My name is Mia Scher and my name is Adam Kasser and we are from Los Altos Hills, California. We are here to share our concerns... on Gun Violence. I go to Los Altos High School which is a public school in Los Altos, and Adam goes to Menlo School which is a private school nearby. Both are fantastic schools with great support and education. Even though we both live in what is considered “the bubble of Silicon Valley” and rarely worry about our own safety, especially at school, after preparing this speech and researching, it has allowed us to realize that mass shootings can happen to anyone at any school, or in any community space.” 

This is what Aaron Gittin said to Congresswoman Eshoo’s legislative director:  “As Americans, we enjoy the rights to a variety of freedoms. One of the freedoms we are losing more and more is peace of mind. With so many shootings happening continuously throughout our country with no sign of slowing down, that freedom begins to slip away. Americans all throughout our country are forced to constantly be looking over their shoulders, at movie theaters, concerts, and worst of all, schools. Even we, as 10th grade students, feel this fear. Educating students is already a difficult enough task to begin with, and all teachers know that distractions or stressors are often the source of trouble with focusing and learning. This can be a bird flying past the window, a small argument with a friend, but a nation where students fear for their lives at school is unacceptable. All throughout these United States, shootings continue to occur. We as a country must rise to a solution and take back our freedoms.”

It’s all so tragic.  I’ve been on the verge of tears for days.  I’m so angry.   Beth Am’s amazing teenagers knew that the inaction of adults, the lack of courage of people who were supposed to be responsible, created an atmosphere where the question became not if, but where.  Not if, but when.  

And, I’m so upset because we’ve talked and preached about this before:

In December of 2012, on the Shabbat after Sandy Hook, Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser said: “ We need to heed the wisdom of those who came before us who recognized that sometimes weapons are necessary, but they must be treated with caution.  Above all, great care must be taken to make sure they do not fall into the wrong hands.”

In July of 2015,  I said after the church shooting in Charleston, SC:  “We all know that an attack on one community of faith is an attack on all communities of faith”

In June of 2016, after the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida, Rabbi Marder said:  “That’s what I want in my country: a gun policy that allows for reasonable self-defense but does everything possible to prevent guns from taking the lives of the innocent.

We’ve said it other times, after UCSB or Tucson or Aurora or Las Vegas or so many other places and tragically, before too long, one of the Rabbis will be up here saying it again.  Offering Kaddish prayers for people, for kids, who simply did not deserve to die.  Dayenu.  Enough. Our kids deserve better.  

We’ve done a lot at Beth Am on Gun Violence Prevention.  I’m a member of a local interfaith anti-gun violence coalition that is now targeting a specific bill in Sacramento.  We’ve lobbied and had speakers.  We’ve marched and studied.   We need to continue to be outraged and smash the idol of gun worship.  If we aren’t working to limit gun deaths in this country we are complicit.   

Rabbi Tom Alpert writes:  In Judaism, we have a concept called b’racha l’vatala. It means a prayer that is in vain. Such a prayer is prohibited because it cheapens all prayer. I thought of that prohibition when I heard America’s leaders again extending their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of another school shooting, the fifth since January 1. If we pray but don’t do anything to make our prayers a reality, aren’t they simply examples of b’racha l’vatala?

Five school shootings in a month and a half. Bill Bratton, the former police commissioner of New York City, referred to this as the “new normal.” Maybe it has to be for those who deal with these threats, but it cannot be the new normal for our whole society. We cannot simply acquiesce in that.

One way not to acquiesce in that is to get angry every time there is a new school shooting. It can feel exhausting to get angry time after time. It can be frustrating to find time after time that the most basic of steps to reduce the supply of weapons of mass destruction are thwarted by lawmakers. But we Jews know that justice demands that we keep fighting. We might not win now, but if we don’t struggle now, we won’t ever win. If we do struggle now, we can have faith that a better time will come.

Among the victims in Parkland were five Jewish students. One was Alyssa Alhadeff, a camper at the Reform Movement’s Camp Coleman - a sister camp to Camp Newman. According to a news report, “Staff there remembered her as being ‘like an angel,’ always happy to help out and quick to adjust to a new environment.” She was planning to return to camp this summer.

She should be alive today. So, I’m going to make some phone calls. I’m going to continue to fight for sensible gun regulation. I’m going to grieve, and I’m going to be angry, and I’m not going to accept that this is the new normal. Many of you are already going well beyond that. If more of us join in, regardless of how long it takes, we can ensure that our prayers for the victims won’t be in vain”

Let’s let our anger and indignation fuel us.  Let us call out the cowards in positions of power who will not do anything productive to end this gun epidemic.  (Rabbi Sharon Braus - IKAR) Our leaders are not leading, so we must.  Instead of being the body of the people many of our leaders are stuck worshiping a false god - a god that allows them to pursue campaign donations and an A rating from the NRA - instead of the protection of our children.  It should not be harder to vote than to buy a gun.  It should not be harder to buy cold medication than to buy a gun. We must support anyone that says enough is enough.   Groups like Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign and Anytown USA.   We should support them with our words, our actions and our check books.     

I am so angry!    But - Our future is bright.  Our students are terrific. They are kind and compassionate.  They are funny and wise.  They are passionate and inspiring.   Our nation is waking up.  Our kids have more courage than we do and we can learn a lot from them.  Before too long they will be in the driver seat - both figuratively and literally.   They will be governors and senators, and become teachers and coaches and doctors and rabbis.  We can’t tell them what it’s going to look like but let’s do everything possible to at least make sure the world they inherit from us is safe.    This is our challenge, for the sake of our country, for the sake of our community, for the sake of our kids.  

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