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San Bernardino stirs local rabbis to action
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San Bernardino stirs local rabbis to action

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Members of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange lit candles and recited prayers Dec. 3 in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. The ceremony took place during the second in a series of three programs on gun violence; the film, Living for 32</em
Members of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange lit candles and recited prayers Dec. 3 in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. The ceremony took place during the second in a series of three programs on gun violence; the film, Living for 32</em

In the wake of the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead and 21 wounded, rabbis are raising their voices. 

For some, it means doubling down on advocacy for gun control and safety. 

For others, it means raising a difficult question about the tension between security and tolerance. 

And members of a third group are using their pulpits to offer hope, encouragement, and, yes, prayer, notwithstanding the NY Daily News’ front page admonition that “God is not fixing this” and tweets calling out politicians for offering prayers while taking money from the National Rifle Association.

Several congregations had already been engaged in advocacy issues around gun violence. Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield had, coincidentally, set aside the Shabbat of Dec. 18 to discuss gun violence and what can be done about it. 

Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange was in the midst of a three-part series on gun violence prevention when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, were identified as the shooters in the attack on a county social services facility in San Bernardino. The pair amassed, apparently legally, an arsenal that included at least two semi-automatic weapons.

A speakers’ forum was held at Oheb Shalom in October in partnership with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; on Dec. 3, the congregation held a screening of the film Living for 32, about a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people. The film was preceded by a candle-lighting and some brief prayers. In January, the congregation will undertake a campaign from Moms Demand Action (part of Everytown for Gun Safety) called Be Smart, which offers five pointers for gun safety. 

Many of the rabbis added prayers to services or changed their sermons for Shabbat. On Friday morning, Rabbi Andy Dubin of the Jewish Center of Northwest NJ in Washington wrote in an e-mail, “I scrapped my planned sermon yesterday and wrote a new one in light of this week’s massacre. I’m still working on it now.”

At Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, a letter regarding Syrian refugees, designed in part to combat Islamophobia, was offered as a handout. Sponsored by HIAS and signed by 1,000 rabbis, it calls on elected officials to welcome refugees and to oppose any measures that would “actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”

TBAY’s Rabbi Mark Mallach changed his sermon on Hanukka to focus on “how in the darkest of days…lighting the hanukkia is a powerful reminder of spreading this light and giving hope.”

Even in the weeks before the San Bernardino attack, Rabbi Mendy Herson of the Chabad Jewish Center at Basking Ridge was writing about the threat from radical Islamist terrorists and what he described in a blog post as “the tightrope between security and selfishness, protection and paranoia.”

“Do we impale ourselves on the flag of America’s openness to refugees? Or do we close our borders — and our hearts — to those who may be in genuine need?” Herson wrote, soon after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130. “Do we suffocate our society by over-wrapping ourselves in the flag of American citizenship and privacy rights? Or do we become suspicious of our fellow Americans, wondering which neighbor may have come to our shores with evil intentions?

“This is not a simple dilemma,” he added. “It’s a struggle between maintaining the security of our shores and maintaining our moral soul. We don’t want to sacrifice either. At the same time, we can’t always have our cake and eat it, too.”

At Congregation Ohr Shalom: Summit JCC, Rabbi Avi Friedman had already been involved in interfaith efforts in support of gun safety. “As a congregation we promote events and encourage contacting our representatives,” he said. 

But because he was asked so soon after the San Bernardino shooting, Friedman added he’s “not sure what — if any — additional steps we’ll take going forward. After all, it just happened.” He also addressed the Jewish approach to guns in his weekly blog, which referred to the story of Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukka story who fought, with weapons, for religious freedom. “Judaism is not inherently opposed to self-defense and the possession of weapons. Quite the opposite, it is something we celebrate,” he wrote, calling soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces “the modern-day heirs to the Maccabean tradition.” 

But Friedman said he also believes Judaism requires limits. He wrote, “There must be a balance between the desire to protect our own lives and the preservation of other lives. Somehow, sadly, in this country we are horribly off-balance. We have placed so much emphasis on an individual’s right to self-defense that we have forgotten our obligation to protect the lives of everyone else around that individual.”

At Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, Rabbi Renee Edelman is focusing more on action and less on prayer, although she said she spoke “in a limited way” about the shooting on Shabbat during services. In the coming weeks, she said, the congregation will host open discussion groups for people to express their views on national security in an age of terrorism. The congregation will then decide what action to take. Discussions focusing on gun control and how to help Syrian refugees have already taken place.

Comparing the world we are living in to “the wild west,” she referred to a time when “laws are a suggestion, and lives are viewed without holiness by many of the terrorist splinter groups and our own homegrown shooters.”

She concluded that this year for Hanukka, “I pray for a miracle where countries and their leaders come together in support and solidarity and take a firm stance toward eradicating terrorism.”

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