These have been difficult weeks. As we prepared to usher in our new year, 5778, we witnessed what felt, at least to me, like an endless slew of natural disasters. Hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes unleashed a torrent of human suffering. We knew that we had to act, and that we had to help, but how? Who did you help first? Where was aid needed most? We each, personally and as a community, made difficult decisions on how to allocate precious resources and get them into the hands of those who were desperate for what we had to offer.
And then we brought in 5778. As a community, we rejoiced in the New Year, in its possibilities and promises, and we did the hard work of teshuva, of turning to our better selves. And then, on Monday morning, I imagine that, like so many of you, I woke up to news that was, for lack of a better word, unbelievable. A gunman, acting alone, opened fire on thousands of concert goers from a high perch. So far, he is responsible for 59 deaths, and over 500 injuries. Once again, we were witnessing unimaginable human suffering. Children without mothers and fathers. Mothers and fathers having to do the unspeakable, to witness the death of their children before their own.
The response to what we witnessed in Las Vegas isn’t altogether different from what resulted in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and natural disasters. Prayers. Condolences. Mourning. These are important, natural responses to a horrific event, but they are not enough. While when confronted by natural disasters we can feel powerless and at a loss, such should not be the case when we witness violent, man-made disasters. While hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires have been, and always will be, the way of the world, the kind of violence that took 59 lives so far and injured hundreds of others must not be.
As Daryl Messinger, a chair of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), stated recently in response to the world offering prayers and condolences, “they’re not sufficient.” To that end, I want to offer you resources culled together by the URJ to help you respond to this latest act of violence. I recognize that these resources may not be applicable to each of you or, perhaps, may not be what you need or feel is right in response to what happened in Las Vegas. Nonetheless, they are a starting point, a way to offer prayers and condolences from a Jewish perspective, and a way to act.
First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the effect that violence and death can have on our children. It has become harder and harder to shield them from terrible news and gruesome images and so the URJ has resources for parents to help guide conversations about events like the one we we witnessed just days ago:
- “Helping Children to Process Acts of Terrorism”: After acts of violence, children may have both practical and theological questions, such as: How can we be protected from terrorism? Where is God? Why would God allow such things to happen? Rabbi Edythe Mencher, also a clinical social worker, wrote this in-depth guide for talking to children of varying ages about acts of terrorism and violence.
- “Parenting Thoughts: Helping Children Cope with Tragedy”: Margie Bogdanow, a parent and Jewish educator in the Boston area, wrote this in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2012. She offers four tips for parents to address tragedies with their children – and to take time to process it themselves, too.
- “Talking to Children about Death”: Rabbi Mencher also penned this Jewish perspective on 10 common questions parents ask when helping children to better deal with death, grief, and mourning.
At times like these, it can be difficult for us to find the words in our heart for prayer and meditation and there is only a limited selection of options in our prayer books that address spiritual confusion and grief. Leaders in our movement have, therefore, helped provide us with words to pray out loud and to ourselves :
- Mourner’s Kaddish:This ancient prayer has been on the lips of Jewish mourners around the world for centuries.
- “A Prayer for Victims of the Las Vegas Shootings”: Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, offered these words in memoriam of those who died in Las Vegas, presented aloud at the Washington National Cathedral’s interfaith prayer service to mourn victims of the tragedy.
- “A Kaddish after Gun Violence, for When Humanity Fails Itself”: Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Temple Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, wrote this powerful original prayer in the immediate wake of Sunday’s shootings.
- “A Liturgy after Terror Attacks”: This four-piece liturgy from Jerusalem-based writer Alden Solovy includes “After a Terror Attack,” “To Terror Survivors,” “To the Terrorists,” and “Let Tranquility Reign.”
- “Havdalah with a Gun: A Poem after Violence”:Reform Jewish poet Stacey Zisook Robinson wrote this piece in late 2015 – but it is, tragically, still quite relevant today, as mass shootings and acts of gun violence continue to occur.
Finally, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rick Jacobs, recently stated:
We cannot say that there are ‘no words’ to express our grief and our outrage. We must find the words, and we must not stop saying them and acting on them until we stop this plague of gun violence that has gripped our nation for far too long.
Action accompanied with prayer has long since been the charge of our movement, and so the URJ has helped provide guidance for action under these circumstances:
- Ask Congress to protect common sense gun safety laws: The House of Representatives is poised to vote on the SHARE Act (H.R. 3668), which would weaken a federal law that regulates the sale of gun silencers. Silencers disguise the sound of gunfire and make it difficult for people – including law enforcement officers – to recognize and locate an active shooter. Call on Congress to reject and immediately forgo a vote on the SHARE Act.
- Join the Reform community’s efforts: Visit rac.org/gvp for resources from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, including the latest updates and more about gun violence prevention through a Reform Jewish perspective.
- Find resources for teens: NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement offers resources created by teens, for teens, on the topic of gun violence prevention. Visit nfty.org/gvp for individual action items for teens and adults, as well as ways your synagogue youth group can get involved in this vital work.
- Follow the work of our partners: To find additional ways to get involved and to learn more about gun violence prevention efforts nationwide, visitEverytown for Gun Safety, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Metro-IAF’s Do Not Stand Idly By Campaign.
These resources offer you a way to express your grief and concern for our fellow human beings. They represent the position of the Reform Movement on topics such a grief, mourning, and preventing and/or dramatically reducing gun violence. While my hope, as your rabbi, is that something in the list above resonates with you, and makes this difficult period in our nation’s history easier to think and act through, I recognize that in tragedies of this scale, there are often no easy answers or obvious paths to change. As always, if you would like to speak to me personally about your own concerns or grief about this most recent tragedy, or if you wish to hear more about the Jewish response to death and violence, my door is always open to you.