U.S. rabbis’ anti-gun violence group starts in Berkeley

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Last week, Rabbi Menachem Creditor learned about a triple shooting in his community that sent three Berkeley teenagers to the hospital with serious injuries.

Creditor posted a news story on the Facebook page for his synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and shortly thereafter heard from a congregation member who had been shopping at a supermarket where two of the teens are employed. Creditor quickly reached out to the owner and manager and offered the congregation’s assistance.

At the White House in 2013, Rabbi Menachem Creditor speaks about gun violence. photo/heather wilson-pico network

His swift response and offer of support was typical for him and evidence of how strongly concerned he is about gun violence.

“The number of funerals for young men who are being affected by our carelessness around gun policy is huge. It’s just a matter of time before all of us remember we’re connected,” Creditor said. “Rabbis have always been there to remind our communities to pay attention.”

In recognition of that rabbinic role to be a beacon, Creditor launched a new group, Rabbis Against Gun Violence, on Feb. 18, with the help of a handful of rabbis from around the country. Primarily organized on Facebook, the closed group (a user has to join to see posts and make comments) was nearing 1,000 members less than a week later.

“Our vision is to amplify the work that’s being done, knowing that Congress has failed us so far,” Creditor said. “The ability that faith leaders have to marshal civic activism is unrivaled.”

Like many Americans, Creditor reached a boiling point on guns after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 young children and six adults were killed. He was invited to the White House by the PICO National Network (a grassroots organizing network) as part of an interfaith coalition against gun violence, and ended up leading the delegation of nine rabbis among 100 faith leaders. That initiation into gun violence advocacy made him realize how much he had to learn.

“It was a month after Newtown, and I thought I knew what gun violence meant,” Creditor said. “I realized that it went far beyond these massacres.”

The rabbinical delegation to Washington created a Facebook group called “PICO Rabbis” to address issues of racial inequality and urban gun violence. Creditor also edited a 2013 book of essays by rabbis about gun violence called “Peace in Our Cities.” Though he remained active on issues related to race and violence, the PICO Rabbis group failed to gain traction.

Then, at the beginning of January, President Barack Obama announced new executive actions expanding background checks for gun buyers, as well as directing national agencies to research gun safety technology and proposing new appropriations for mental health care. Creditor saw an opening.

Eileen Soffer (front left) and other activists in Washington, D.C. in 2013

He renamed the PICO Rabbis Facebook group “Rabbis Against Gun Violence” (www.facebook.com/groups/RabbisAgainstGunViolence) and started circulating it to other rabbis. As the only group of its kind — rabbis mobilizing to curb gun violence — according to organizers, membership grew from 50 to 500 within 36 hours, Creditor said, and was at 984 as of Feb. 23. A complementary Twitter account (@RabbisAgstGunV) had 351 followers as of that date.

Creditor also got Eileen Soffer, a Mountain View resident who had worked as the national deputy field director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to come aboard as the full-time national coordinator. One of her tasks is to bring the group onto the national stage.

“I think that Sandy Hook was a turning point for lots of people … it was too horrific to contemplate,” Soffer said. However, she pointed out, events like Sandy Hook aren’t the whole story. “People realize mass shootings capture headlines, but the daily toll of shootings in their cities rarely gets attention.”

In announcing its launch, Rabbis Against Gun Violence outlined a variety of issues it supports, including further expanded background checks, public health research into gun violence and the “no notoriety” campaign, discouraging the media from writing about and printing photos of the perpetrators of mass shootings in order to avoid glamorizing them. The group deliberately defined a long list of initiatives to give members multiple entry points, Soffer said.

The vision is that rabbis can use their position as faith leaders to educate their communities about the issue and support the advocacy work being done by other organizations. There’s also a good opportunity for rabbis from different parts of the country to become active on the state level as legislative issues arise, Soffer said.

“Thirty-three thousand Americans are killed every year by guns,” Soffer said. “If this were anything else killing Americans, we’d have research, we’d have interventions —  but the gun lobby has blocked even the most limited legislation.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.