The bus ride from Suburban Philadelphia to Harrisburg, PA – the state capital – is only an hour and a half. The shift in landscape leaving densely populated Montgomery County and the rural farmland passing into Daughin County is symbolic of the political and cultural gap in Pennsylvania politics between the predominately liberal hubs around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the primarily conservative base of the rest of the state.
This ideological divide was none the more apparent than on Wednesday morning, Jan. 23rd for those waiting in line with me in the frigid weather to enter the State Capitol Building. I had just arrived on one of several busses filled with other members of the Philadelphia Jewish community for a rally co-sponsored by CeaseFirePA and the Jewish Community Relations Council demanding that 2013 be a year of action to fight gun violence in Pennsylvania. We were told in advance that there would be a counter demonstration by pro-gun groups.
While we were waiting on the left side of two lines outside the entrance, a police officer came out and made the following announcement, “Those who are checking guns stand on the right and those without guns stand on the left.” Instantly participants on both sides of this debate were identifiable as those of us who had come on the buses to advocate for stricter guns moved over the right, while others who came to show their support for fewer gun restrictions crossed our path and made their way to the left side. What could have been a very tense moment was relieved by the humor and irony of the whole incident. There was civility between people of radically different beliefs, rather than the anger and hostility that is being portrayed in the media. This, I believe, will be one key to the process of developing and hopefully passing of common sense gun laws – gun owners and anti-gun activists will have to work together to achieve the common goal of reducing the amount of gun violence that plagues our nation each day.
The rally against gun violence held in the middle of the state capitol building was a powerful and emotionally moving statement in support of passing common sense gun laws. The first five speakers shared stories of losing loved ones – parents, children, and babies – people who were innocently caught in the line of fire of people wielding illegal hand guns and assault weapons. This was followed by mayors of Pennsylvania towns and cities who are part of national group called, “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” who shared how as leaders of their municipalities they have committed to address measures that will reduce gun violence. These local politicians were followed by members of Pennsylvania’s Senate and House of Representatives who have formed a bi-partisan, bi-cameral coalition called PASafe whose sole mission is to introduce and pass legislation to reduce gun violence in the state.
Finally, four Middle School students, including Kenesth Israel’s Jessie Pritchard, read the four points of CeaseFirePA’s own legislative agenda. This was one of the most important elements of the rally for me. Most politicians spoke about the pressing need for gun law reform in the wake of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Jessie is taking her activism one step further. Her Bat Mitzvah project is anti-gun violence advocacy. She came to Harrisburg with her mother and her father and her rabbi to represent her peers and to express her most heartfelt desire that they need not become victims themselves. Not her, not the students in her school, not the children of Greater Philadelphia, this country or this world – to save a life, she said according to Jewish tradition, is paramount to saving the whole world. So much of this conversation centers on protecting the lives of children and teenagers. I am proud out that our congregation and our movement empower and enable our students to develop their own beliefs from grounding in Jewish values and ethics and then teach them how to put it into action.
I left Harrisburg last week with very mixed emotions. On one hand, I felt the power of the urgency of the situation to act fast to put legislative measures in place that will take illegal weapons off the street, make it harder for acquire legal guns, and restrict the types of semi-automatic and automatic guns and ammunition that can be sold in PA. On the other hand, even if the best laws were passed tomorrow we will still be a state and a nation where it is too easy to get a gun on the street. I am hopeful however, that just as gun owners became real people, not just an opponent, to me at the beginning of the day, the two sides of this issue can identify goals that are mutually beneficial and work together to pass common sense measures that will save lives. Perhaps I am naïve, but I pray that compassion will win out over passion and that partnership will triumph over politics – and that ultimately we will all feel safer.
Participate in our interfaith call-in day to prevent gun violence on Monday February 4th by visiting www.faithscalling.org! Worried you’ll forget? Text “FaithsCalling” to 877877!
Rabbi Kevin M. Kleinman is the Associate Rabbi Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA.