Parkland, Judaism led me to Moms Demand Action
by Jessica Blitchok, Deputy Chapter Leader for California Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Board Member, JCRC of Jewish Silicon Valley
February 14 was the third anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
As we entered into 2018, I was preparing to become an adult Bat Mitzvah. I was terrified of my upcoming D’var Torah. Speaking in public and taking a public stand on issues that impacted our community was not something that I was comfortable with. Then, on February 14, 2018, 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Something about this particular mass shooting hit me even harder than the equally horrific mass shootings that had come before it. My children were scared to go to school, and I felt something in me change. Within a week I became involved with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and since then, I have worked to end gun violence in our country, whether it is leading local meetings, speaking at press conferences, community events, or on radio and TV interviews, and training other volunteer leaders. I have found my voice and become brave in a way I have never been able to before. I have always felt strongly about doing good in the world but until Spring of 2018, I wasn’t able to push myself out of my comfort zone, to raise my voice in a crowd and fight for change. While I recognized this change in myself, I wasn’t able to figure out how preparing for my Bat Mitzvah triggered this change in me - even though I knew deep down that the two things - my faith and my activism - were related. And then I attended a retreat, where an incredible Torah study was led by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and his teaching made the connection between my activism and my Judaism crystal clear.
It starts with the story of Moses and the tablets. To recap = Moses goes up Mt. Sinai, waits 40 days and 40 nights for God to give him the tablets. He comes down from Mount Sinai with the tablets, sees his people worshipping the golden calf, and in a full on tantrum, throws the tablets to the ground smashing them. In response God asks Moses to come back up the mountain and makes Moses new tablets. Why isn’t Moses punished for ruining this holy gift from God? In fact, instead of being punished, he is rewarded with new tablets. The Talmud explains that in God telling Moses to come back up the mountain to get new tablets, he is also saying “good job” “you did the right thing”. God appreciates Moses taking a stand, because taking a stand is a tool for disruption in an unjust world. This is proof that as Jews we are not supposed to be bandwagoners. We are supposed to take a stand. So there it is - the connection between my activism and my Judaism. As Jews, we are spiritually called to take a stand. For me, something about my Bat Mitzvah activated that part of my spirituality and gun violence prevention is the cause I raise my voice for.
Gun violence is a uniquely American problem - and one that I am determined to help solve. The facts are distressing. Over 100 Americans die every day as a result of gun violence. The majority of gun deaths do not occur in the mass shootings that get the predominance of media coverage. In fact, suicide accounts for the highest percentage of gun deaths. Due to systemic and enduring institutional racism, gun violence disproportionately impacts our communities of color. A Black man in America is 16x more likely to die by gun homicide than a white man. Our children and youth are also being heavily impacted - gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children and teens. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation often has deadly consequences. Every month, an average of 53 women are shot to death by an intimate partner. Unfortunately, COVID has only intensified our country’s gun violence crisis. From March to May 2020, an estimated 5.9 Million guns were sold - an 80% increase over the same time in the previous year. Unintentional shooting deaths by children increased an estimated 30% over previous years because more children are home with more guns.
While these problems are dire, there are proven, data driven solutions we can fight for at the federal, state and local level. Advocating to close federal background check loopholes, educating about safe storage, and lobbying for increased funding to community based violence intervention and prevention programs are some of the ways that we can take a stand and tackle the gun violence problem. With a gun-sense majority in the White House, Senate and House of Representatives we have an unprecedented opportunity to pass landmark federal gun safety legislation. However, more people need to take a stand and call, email, and message their representatives to demand common sense gun safety legislation. Children’s lives are saved when we educate about safe storage but more people need to take a stand and ask their school districts, medical providers and community organizations to share the safe storage message. There are incredible community based organizations across our country and in our state and county, doing the life-saving work of violence intervention in our most impacted communities. More people need to take a stand by learning about these organizations and telling their lawmakers to prioritize their funding.
Kabbalistic scholars say we were born equal parts good and bad, so the focus and importance of our lives becomes centered on our choices. I have chosen to take a stand to fight gun violence. I invite you to join me and Moms Demand Action in the fight by texting READY to 644-33.
For more information about Moms Demand Action go to www.momsdemandaction.org.
For detailed research and articles about gun violence go to www.everytown.org.
This blog post follows a presentation at Jewbilee on Gun Violence Prevention Through a Jewish Lens which can be viewed here.