Jewish moms at Oakland march sound off against gun violence

Dark clouds loomed overhead, and heavy rain fell more than once during the afternoon. But the people rallying at Sunday's Million Mom March in Oakland were undaunted by the soggy weather.

Jewish involvement in the event was significant, from the shofar that sounded a call to action to the cutting-edge Jewish rock sounds of singer Bruce Burger, better known as RebbeSoul.

"As a people, we need to say no to violence," said Teri Appleby, who attended with a delegation from Oakland's Temple Sinai. "It's very much a Jewish tradition to speak up for the issues that affect us. We're commanded to be involved."

With one estimate reaching a count as high as 5,000, attendees gathered in front of the Lake Merritt bandstand to hear blessings, ballads and emotive speeches.

Simultaneous Million Mom March rallies occurred throughout the country, an idea organizers proposed as an alternative to attending the main demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Carol Kingsley, widow of former American Jewish Congress regional president Jack Berman, gave a moving speech in which she spoke of her husband's death. Berman was killed by gunshot in San Francisco during the 1993 massacre at 101 California St.

"People who are shot are not the only victims," said Kingsley, who now heads the AJCongress' Jack Berman Advocacy Center. "There are also those who are left behind — there is long suffering, deep pain."

However, she continued, massive gun slayings represent "only a small part" of the 30,000 gun-related deaths in the United States each year. Kingsley joined other event speakers in calling for tighter laws governing gun registration and sale.

"The NRA may not care [about this], but we mothers care deeply," she said, drawing enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

Many participants attended the rally because of their own experience with gun violence.

For Lisa Cohen, south Peninsula chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the fact that the march occurred on Mother's Day was especially poignant.

"My mother committed suicide with a handgun when I was 15," said Cohen, whose husband and children also attended. "If she hadn't had that gun, I think that maybe we could have got her the help she needed."

Gun violence has also affected the life of Cohen's 15-year-old daughter Magali, who attends Menlo-Atherton High School. Last year, while waiting outside for Cohen to pick her up after school, a gunfight broke out between rival gang members.

"It was really scary," she said.

Marcher Sharon Lack Stein, a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, said she was especially worried about recent attacks on Jewish sites in the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas. She attended the event with daughters Monica, 14, and Elena, 11.

"It's tragic to see people attack synagogues," she said. "The issue of violence is at a crisis in our country — we need to encourage tolerance."

Before singing the Hebrew ballad "Kol Dodi," Burger spoke of a recent trip to Israel, rating its gun laws more favorably than those of America.

"Friends told me to be careful there, but I've never felt safer," he said. "In L.A., I turn on the news and it seems that there are five gun-related incidents every night."

Following RebbeSoul, Rabbi Steven Chester of Temple Sinai in Oakland took the stage.

Blowing the shofar to close the rally, Chester told the audience its significance: "This is an ancient Jewish tradition that announces religious ceremonies and celebrations."

Looking out at a sea of umbrellas, he then encouraged the sodden crowd to begin marching around Lake Merritt.

"It's raining today, and in our tradition, when it's raining we say that God is crying," Chester explained. "But we also say that God is laughing and crying tears of joy, because we're all here together.

"God," said the rabbi, "does not want us killing each other."