Congregation B'nai Israel

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You Can Change the World – Is that a Lie

by Rabbi James Prosnit, February 16, 2018/1 Adar, 5778

The week got off to a good enough start. Last weekend I was in Washington DC on the annual confirmation class trip to the l’takein political action seminar sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 400 students from across the country – 20 or so congregations. One happened to be from Palo Alto and another from Westfield NJ – so not only did I get to see my rabbi sons, I got to see the grandchildren as well. A good weekend indeed.

There were 15 confirmands from B’nai Israel that proved to be just a wonderful engaged and terrific group of young people that do us all proud.

They spent the weekend studying a number of issues that affect our nation and are taught to consider them through a lens imbued with certain Jewish values that most of us all hold dear. With the help of RAC staff they then narrow down the list to four or five topics that they’d like to consider in greater depth. They then write position papers and on Monday morning go up to capitol hill to speak to legislative assistants from Senator Murphy and Blumenthal and Congressman Himes’ offices.

All along the kids are told that their voices matter and that they can change the world. We tell them that their views are respected, that not only will they be voters in a few years, but our elected officials value the opinions even of teenagers. They’re taught that they and all the other students have unique access to the democratic process. I underscore the amazing accessibility that we as US citizens have. When you enter one of the Senate office buildings you go through a metal detector, but the security guards don’t ask for your ID or  where you’re headed or if you have an appointment. You walk right in to the office and say I’m so and so and I’d like to leave a message for Senator such and such. You can’t do that at one of the offices in downtown Bridgeport. They ask for ID and quiz you about an appointment and call up to the office to be sure.

It is a remarkable experience in terms of civic responsibility and possibility.

We’ve taken this trip for now I believe 28 years – and the experience was once again wonderful for the kids.

But for a week that started out so good – why do I have an aching pit in my stomach tonight that tells me I’ve lied to our students. I say your voices matter, you can change the world, people in Washington listen!!

And then we experience a week of total inaction on an immigration bill, that the kids lobbied on, on Climate Change that they spoke about (all things that polls tell us the American people want action on) and then on Wednesday/Valentine’s Day no less — once again we bear witness to another horrific school shooting where easy access to an assault weapon, by a person who should not have had one, calls out even further the futility of our congresses ability to make even common sense gun legislation.

Listen to our students words on Monday:

Hello my name is Noah Giglietti, and along with Jackson Weisman and Henry Szuchman, we are here on behalf of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism from Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport. We are in favor of passing the Background Check Completion Act.  …As the book of Leviticus says, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. We, as reform Jews, cannot stand by and watch as thousands of people are impacted by gun violence.”

“Over 30,000 people are killed from gun violence each year. Those are at least 30,000 families broken, 30,000 communities affected, and an infinite number of lives changed.”  

“He who takes one life, it is as though he has destroyed the universe, and he who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the universe.” This saying comes from a rabbi’s commentary in the Talmud, ……..The fact that we as a society have begun to normalize gun violence casualties points to the troubled direction our country is headed in. In the first 41 days of the New Year, there have been at least 27 mass shootings reported. 35 people have been killed, and an astounding 103 have been wounded. While the media has covered many of these incidents, the majority goes unnoticed. Who are we to say that one live lost is any more significant than another? In fact, seven people under the age of 19 die a day to the bullet of a gun. Most importantly, these are not just numbers. Every single one of these victims was a person, a friend, a family member. If we can save even one life with the Background Check Completion Act, then as the Talmud said, we save a universe. And who knows how many more we can save?

The student goes on to talk about background checks and to thank our representatives for their lead on the issue; but then like in the immigration and climate change discussions that other students presented on they returned home to the reality of the headlines — the status quo of political inaction and the inability of our leaders to achieve even the slightest compromise to get anything done.

If you’re getting the sense that I’m disheartened – you may well be right.

But then I’m reminded of the late writer and social activist, Elie Wiesel, who tells this story.

A righteous man came to the wicked city of Sodom and pleaded with the people to change their ways. No one listened.

Finally, he sat in the middle of the city, and simply screamed.

Someone asked him, “Do you think that will change anyone in this town?”

“No,” said the righteous man.

“But at least, they will not change me.”

We’ll continue to send our kids and teach them to scream– with the hopes that they are the ones who may be able to change our culture, and to heal our nation’s wounds!