Jun 30, 2013

the blessed burden

the blessed burden
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
with unending gratitude to American Jewish World Service

through sharing pain over and over
emotions catch up. 

telling the story over and over 
furthers purpose 
and deepens ache. 

the blessed burden
doesn't drag down;
it renders every action cosmic. 

Jun 27, 2013

New Republic: "This Is How the NRA Ends"

This Is How the NRA Ends

A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived

by Alec MacGillis | May 28, 2013

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/113292/nras-end-real-gun-control-movement-has-arrived

On April 17, the bill to expand background checks on gun buyers failed in the Senate, and the fatalistic shrugs in Washington were so numerous they were nearly audible. The legislation had been a modest bipartisan compromise, supported by 90 percent of the public and lobbied for hard by the president. A group backed by Michael Bloomberg had spent $12 million on ads pressuring senators to vote “yes.” When the bill fell short—by just five votes—it seemed to confirm a Beltway article of faith: There’s no point messing with the National Rifle Association (NRA). And that, many assumed, was the last we’d be hearing about gun reform.

But then something unexpected happened. Some of the senators who’d voted “no” faced furious voters back home. Even before Erica Lafferty, the daughter of murdered Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung, confronted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte at a particularly tense town hall, Ayotte’s disapproval rating in the state had jumped from 35 to 46 percent—half the respondents said her “no” vote made them less likely to support her.1 In Pennsylvania, which has the second-highest concentration of NRA members in the country, the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Pat Toomey, saw his approval reach a record high. One of the country’s best-known gun-rights advocates, Robert Levy, said the NRA’s “stonewalling of the background-check proposal was a mistake, both politically and substantively.”2

In the Senate, the backlash had an effect. Some Republicans who had opposed the bill, such as Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, signaled they might be open to changing their minds. Majority Leader Harry Reid, once a dependable NRA ally, spoke about taking the rare step of bringing the bill back for another vote. Senator Joe Manchin, the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, is still actively courting support from his colleagues. “It’s not going away,” he told me.

Why did these developments take so many elected officials and pundits by surprise? As New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has pointed out, political science research shows that politicians consistently overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. But in this case, there was something more debilitating at work. The political class often lets old assumptions blind it to shifting realities.3 And the absolute power of the NRA is one of the oldest and least-tested assumptions in Washington.

The NRA, of course, has real clout. Like many other groups, it lobbies in Washington and state capitals, buys ads and deploys activists during elections, and maintains a ratings system that grades elected officials and candidates on their support for its goals. What sets the NRA apart is its relentless invocation of the Second Amendment, the single-mindedness of its supporters, and the inchoate nature of its hold on politicians. Its approval has come to signify not merely support for gun ownership, but American authenticity. For many in Congress, it’s “a cultural thing,” says one veteran Senate staffer. “You have to pass a cultural test for [constituents] to listen to you on the other stuff.”

And yet for some time now, the NRA’s power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact. Gun ownership is declining—from half of households in the 1970s to a third today. A slew of senators and governors have won campaigns in red or purple states despite NRA F ratings, including Tim Kaine (Virginia), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bill Nelson (Florida), who has campaigned on gun control but has won majorities even in deeply conservative Panhandle counties. Senator Chris Murphy, a rookie Connecticut Democrat who has taken a lead on the issue since the Newtown massacre, points out that, of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost. “The NRA is just all mythology,” he says. “The NRA does not win elections anymore.”

The reason for the gap between perception and reality is that, for many years, the NRA has had no real opposition. This has given the debate a strange quality: For gun-control advocates, the recent challenge has been less about persuading politicians on policy grounds and more about trying to convince them that the conventional wisdom about gun politics is wrong.

And then came Newtown. We are so resigned to seeing mass shootings come and go without any attempt to fix gun laws, but after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, something really did change. At long last and against all expectations, a viable movement for gun regulation is emerging. It is a development that not only bodes ill for the gun lobby and its Republican patrons, but will also complicate matters for elements of the Democratic Party who have been content to accede to the status quo. The narrow defeat of the background-check bill, it turns out, was not the end of hopes for gun reform, but the beginning.

The de facto headquarters for post-Newtown gun-control activism is New York City Hall, where the effort overlaps relatively seamlessly with the business of running a metropolis of eight million people. Bloomberg and his lieutenants were disappointed by the background-check vote, but not discouraged. After all, they now knew which senators to target in 2014. “The mayor has a long view,” says Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s political point person on the issue. “He is well aware that the NRA had the field to themselves for decades, and you don’t overcome those advantages overnight.”

The modern gun-control movement emerged in the early ’70s in reaction to the urban crime wave and the assassinations of 1968; it was led by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence) and the National Council to Control Handguns (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence).4 From the outset, its weaknesses were multiple and self-reinforcing. There were disagreements over whether to pursue incremental reforms or more ambitious proposals like handgun registration. And the movement has always been woefully outmatched financially. Gun-rights groups, funded by gun manufacturers, have given more than $30 million to federal candidates since 1989, compared with just under $2 million by their opponents.5

Gun control’s high point came in the early ’90s, when Congress passed the Brady law requiring background checks at gun dealerships and a ban on assault weapons. But in the 1994 midterms, Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, and Bill Clinton declared that it was the gun issue, more than any other, that was to blame. This was a self-serving explanation—Clinton’s first two years had seen the meltdown of health care reform and a string of scandals. But it was persuasive to a party panicked about the loss of Southern whites and Reagan Democrats. After 1994, Democrats committed themselves to a big-tent philosophy, and one of the largest spaces in the tent was reserved for those who sided with the gun lobby.

The last major push for regulations came after the Columbine massacre in 1999.6 Northeastern Democrats unsuccessfully tried to close the “gun-show loophole”—the exemption from background checks for non-licensed vendors.7 The next year, Al Gore’s loss of West Virginia and Tennessee was attributed to his reluctant talk of gun control in the primaries (never mind that those states were undergoing a long-term shift toward Republicans).8 After that, Democrats virtually went silent on the issue—thereby contributing as much to the NRA’s legend as conservatives ever did. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel proudly recruited pro-gun-rights Democrats for House races; three years later, as President Obama’s chief of staff, he infamously sent word that Attorney General Eric Holder needed to “shut the fuck up” after Holder proposed reinstating the ban on assault weapons, which had been allowed to lapse in 2004.9

But instead of increasing the pressure on politicians, gun-control advocates believed they could prevail through reason alone. While the NRA issued members voting instructions, their adversaries produced well-researched reports on gun violence. “We’ve always been too polite, by appealing to politicians to do the right thing, ... appealing to their conscience and hoping they’d come around even when the evidence suggested they wouldn’t,” says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “We went too far into the realm of educating the public and ceded the field of politics to the NRA. That was disastrous for us.”
All along, though, the gun lobby’s vulnerabilities were there for a serious opponent to exploit. Long before Wayne LaPierre’s rambling press conference after Newtown, the NRA had barreled well out of the mainstream—take LaPierre’s 1995 characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” It has become increasingly easy to find gun owners openly critical of the organization’s extreme politics. And demographic trends have concentrated its most ardent members in ever-narrower regional pockets.

That serious opponent has finally emerged. In 2006, Bloomberg formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns with 14 of his counterparts. One of the group’s first moves was to dispatch undercover investigators to Virginia gun shops—the source of many guns on the streets of northern cities—where they recorded footage showing how easy it was to make illegal purchases.10 In 2010, Bloomberg hired Wolfson, a hard-bitten veteran of three Hillary Clinton campaigns. Listening to the mayor’s team discuss gun control is very different from talking to longtime advocates—the conversations are an odd mash-up of the ruthlessness of campaign hacks and a moral crusade. For an administration that has made its share of ethical compromises—disregarding term limits, pulverizing opponents with the mayor’s personal fortune—gun control has become the ultimate validation.

What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA. There is plenty of latent public support for gun control, his logic goes, but politicians only see a risk in voting for it. He wants to reverse that calculation.

To that end, Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.

Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. “He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,” says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks.11 And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.

Pryor is no NRA favorite—he had a C- rating before the vote—while Begich is a former member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But Wolfson emphasized that only their votes on the bill counted. “It will be critical to ensure that people who voted for it are reelected, and people who voted against it pay an electoral price,” he says. I asked Wolfson if he was worried that going after Pryor—whom they regard as especially vulnerable—would simply lead to his replacement with a pro-NRA Republican. “The fact that a Republican would get elected is irrelevant to our cause,” says Wolfson. “On this issue, a Republican would not be worse.”

The Brady Campaign is adopting a similarly hard-line stance. Last year, it appointed a new director, Dan Gross, whose brother suffered brain damage in the 1997 Empire State Building shooting. In May, I visited him at his Washington office, where Brady visitors need special clearance to board the elevator. Gross stressed that the question of whether his group’s activities might jeopardize Democratic seats is “not our primary concern.” “Part of the change I’ve been implementing is going back to our essence as a single-issue organization and holding everybody accountable on the same terms,” he says. “We’re not an arm of the DNC.”

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

In my conversations with advocates, many remarked on the unity that has emerged after Newtown. The movement soon coalesced around expanding background checks, although taking on assault weapons or ammunition clips would have been a more direct response to recent mass shootings. But police chiefs say background checks would have the biggest impact on gun violence. (An estimated 40 percent of sales are made without them.)14  This harmony may be harder to preserve in the future—Giffords’s organization represents gun owners interested in moderate regulations, while other groups want more aggressive reforms. But for now, they’re coordinating on a near-hourly basis. “I’ve been working with the different groups for many years, and they could never focus on the one thing we were trying to do,” says Representative Carolyn McCarthy, the New York Democrat whose husband was killed in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad. “This time everybody’s come together.”

Starting with background checks also proved crucial in winning allies within the centrist establishment, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Bill Daley, the former Clinton commerce secretary and Obama administration chief of staff. It’s hard to overstate the value of such endorsements for a movement that has been written off for so long. After the vote, Daley wrote an uncharacteristically passionate Washington Post op-eddemanding that Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who voted against the bill, return his $2,500 campaign contribution. (He received it in the mail a few days later, without a note.) Famously cautious, Daley is an advocate of the big-tent approach and wary of what he calls “left-wing loony” gun proposals. But the background-check measure, he told me, was such a reasonable reform, it should have been a no-brainer. “If you can’t prevent gangbangers having front purchasers at gun shows, and all the backdoor gun sales at these shows, then it’s just bullshit,” Daley told me. “Historically, it’s been: ‘You can’t be for this, it’s a third rail.’ Rahm and all that. At some point, though, I think the mood is changing.”

In 2010, Jessica Ghawi was interning on a sports-radio show when she was dispatched to interview a minor league hockey player with the San Antonio Rampage. She showed up in heels and a dress, not realizing the interview was to be conducted on ice. Seconds after stepping onto the rink, she fell flat on her back. Vivacious and good-natured, Ghawi burst out laughing and gamely got on her feet. Then she went down again. And again. A blooper reel went viral on YouTube, much to her distress. “She was crying. She said, ‘I’ve ruined my career, and it hasn’t even begun,’” recalls her mother, Sandy Phillips. “I told her: ‘No, darling. That’s going to open doors for you, because of the way you laughed your way through it.’ And sure enough, that’s what happened.”

Ghawi got into the sports-broadcasting program she coveted, in Denver. Last June, on vacation in Toronto, she was at a shopping mall when a gunman killed two people in the food court. “I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given,” she wrote on her blog. And then it happened again. The next month, she went to see the new Batman movie at a theater in suburban Aurora. That night, James Holmes opened fire on the audience, killing twelve—including Ghawi, whom he shot in the head with a military-style AR-15 rifle.

Phillips, a 63-year-old tourism consultant, and her retired husband had never thought much about firearms laws before. They owned a shotgun they’d never used but that gave them a sense of security. “You hear that click-click of a shotgun, and you’re going to think twice,” she says. After Ghawi’s death, they were stunned to discover gun regulations were so lax: Holmes had purchased his massive arsenal legally. But it didn’t occur to the couple to become activists.

Five months later, Phillips and her husband were about to fly from San Antonio to Denver to collect their daughter’s posthumous degree when they heard early reports of the Newtown shootings. When they landed, Phillips checked her phone. As she learned the horrific details, she was grateful they were seated in the very back of the plane. “I was close to hysterical, and you don’t want anyone to see you that out of control,” she told me. “It was: ‘Oh my God, what do we do, we have to do something.’” By the end of the day, Mayors Against Illegal Guns had contacted them. They got on a plane to New York for a meeting and then took a train to Washington. She and her husband now work full time for the Brady Campaign. She’s an organizer for family members of victims; he’s a liaison to fellow gun owners.

For years, the gun-control movement’s biggest problem has been its inability to marshal a grassroots network to match the dedicated members of the NRA, who show up at town halls when there’s no gun vote anywhere on the horizon.15 This is known as the intensity gap: While plenty of people support stricter gun laws, few advocated for them or voted on the issue unless they had been personally affected by gun violence. Which only underscores the power of Newtown.

Shannon Watts, a mother of five and former communications executive, was sitting at home in Indianapolis after the Sandy Hook massacre feeling “just completely outraged and sad,” she says. She went online looking for some equivalent to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. When she couldn’t find anything, she decided to start one herself, and created a Facebook page for “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” Within one day, it had 1,000 “likes”; by week’s end, it had 7,000. It now has 100,000—with 100 chapters in 40 states.

Watts was swamped with offers of assistance, including one from Jennifer Fiore, a former AOL employee in Washington, D.C. Fiore offered the free services of her husband’s business, BlastRoots, which provides digital organizing tools. Via the group’s page, Fiore circulated a petition calling for reforms and a prompt for e-mailing lawmakers. The response crashed BlastRoots’s servers. The organization is now called Moms Demand Action and sends representatives to White House meetings and coordinates with established groups. Fiore is its full-time lobbyist on Capitol Hill, while her husband takes leave from work to care for their three children.

Like many other members of the group, Fiore, who is 42, has no close connection to gun violence, and was deeply abashed about how little attention she’d previously paid to gun laws. From the start, this cohort struck even Columbine-era advocates as something new. “I’ve been doing this for thirteen years, and I’ve never seen anything approaching the level we’ve had since Newtown,” says Everitt. Another veteran of the cause told me: “I am frightened by these women. They’re mad, they’re angry.”

Before the background-check vote, 240 women from 38 states flew to Washington on their own dimes to visit their senators’ offices.16 Their message, Fiore says, was that they were the “mainstream,” disgusted with the status quo. Watts met her senator, Joe Donnelly, a conservative first-term Democrat, and told him her group already had 3,000 members in Indiana. Donnelly was one of six senators with NRA A ratings to support the bill.

The defeat did not, as pundits predicted, cause the activists’ momentum to dissipate. Instead, it turned out to be a potent recruiting tool. In the days after the vote, Moms Demand Action saw a 30 percent increase in membership. Giffords’s group has raised an astonishing $11 million from 53,500 donors in the past four months. Moms Demand Action has continued to hold protests at the district offices of lawmakers they believe are persuadable. (Their specialty is the “stroller jam,” where moms with strollers and small kids cluster in a corridor or office to make their presence felt.) Bloomberg is assisting this effort by covering travel costs and helping groups bring on family members and survivors as full-time staff.

The groups plan to grow their ranks in key states: Moms Demand Action has chapters in Montana, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, but none in Nevada and Alaska, where activities have been coordinated by a woman from Palo Alto. Following the NRA’s example, they intend to deploy members to confront lawmakers in their districts, regardless of whether gun votes are on the horizon. Also like the NRA, they want to create single-issue voters by zeroing in on women in their circles and social-media networks who usually don’t vote in midterms but who might be mobilized to do so around gun safety. And at least some are determined to become as loud as the other side. Patricia Maisch, who witnessed the Giffords shooting, was ejected from the Senate gallery for hollering “shame on you” after the vote.“I’m for being as loud and noisy and pushy and obnoxious as necessary,” she says, “to let them know it’s not going to go away.”17

Already, there are signs they’re having an impact. The NRA paid for ads claiming Ayotte really did support strengthening background checks. (She favored a far weaker measure.) This line has since been adopted by Flake and others, suggesting the gun lobby realizes it might have played a bad hand. McCarthy said she could tell that her House colleagues in swing districts, including Republicans, were watching the gun-control activists closely. So is the White House, which claims it saw the background-check bill as only the first step in a longer-term fight. “All these things take a bite out of the conventional wisdom that guns are only a bad issue for Democrats to do something about common-sense measures, that it’s a death knell, that there’s no backlash on the other side,” says one White House official.

It is unclear when Reid might introduce the bill again—possibly between the July 4 and August recesses. In anticipation of a House vote, Moms Demand Action members in upstate New York are meeting with their Republican representatives. Other groups are targeting Eric Cantor, whose suburban Richmond district is surprisingly supportive, according to polls conducted by Bloomberg’s group. (Eighty-five percent of Virginians backed the proposal in a mid-May Washington Post poll.) Billboards have gone up in his district, and on one trip to Washington, Sandy Phillips met with Cantor. “I had Cantor in tears,” she told me. “When you start a conversation out and say: ‘You have a daughter. I had a daughter. Would you like to see her killed the way mine was killed?’ And then you go into a description. Cantor had his head down like he was saying, ‘I don’t want to hear this, I don’t want to hear this.’ And I said, ‘Imagine if it’s your daughter pinned down with nowhere to go, and she gets shot six times, and the sixth one takes her brain.’ ... I knew he didn’t want to be there, but he did listen.”

In May, I went to a forum in McLean, Virginia, held by a local group, Concerned Citizens Against Gun Violence. McLean is a moneyed enclave favored by Washington’s conservative elite—and yet here were nearly 100 people who had come to strategize on gun reforms. Jim Lynch, a “conservative, independent, libertarian,” rose to say that a government’s “most sacred duty is to protect the lives of its citizens, in particular young, innocent children.” Ruth Hoffman, a Kansas-born Republican who voted for Mitt Romney, said she was politicized by seeing her first-grade daughter’s anxiety after Newtown. Her teacher now locks the classroom door and assigns a student “butler” to open it to sanctioned visitors.

So far, the group has collected 2,400 signatures for a petition urging their House member, Republican Frank Wolf, to support gun-control measures. They’ve also been pressuring Senator Mark Warner, who supported expanding background checks, to drop his NRA-friendly stances on assault weapons, ammunition-clip limits, and allowing people with concealed-carry permits to bear weapons in other states. Warner’s chief of staff, Luke Albee, told the group, “We’ve heard a lot of criticism of some of the votes Senator Warner cast.” When he announced that Warner was “rethinking” his stance on the concealed-carry issue, the audience cheered.

There are very few genuine converts in politics, which is why Joe Manchin’s recent journey has been so surprising. Manchin was the unlikeliest of champions for the background-check expansion. In a 2010 campaign ad, he blasts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obamacare, and federal spending. Then, vowing to “protect our Second Amendment rights,” he fires a rifle at a sheaf of paper labeled “cap and trade bill.” Manchin was the only Senate Democrat to oppose repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; in 2012, he ostentatiously declined to say whether he’d vote for Obama. What’s remarkable is not just that he sponsored the background-check bill, but that when it failed, he kept on campaigning.

In May, I drove to the far southern reaches of West Virginia to see what kind of reaction he was getting back home. In person, Manchin is a bluff throwback pol, a carpet-store owner’s son who went to college on a football scholarship. When I talked to him about Newtown, he still sounded shaken. “My God, you had babies slaughtered,” he said. He explained that he pushed to expand background checks because he believed something had to be done, and he thought legislation would have a better chance if its sponsors came “from gun culture.”

That day, Manchin was visiting coal counties Obama had lost by 40 and 55 percentage points. In a courthouse in Pineville, he talked about the region’s opiate-abuse problem and groused for a while about the “so-called EPA” before casually easing into background checks. “I’ve heard people say it’s gun control. It’s not gun control—it’s gun sense,” he said. “All we’re saying is, if you go to a gun show, we should do the same as if you went to a gun shop—that everyone should be treated the same. ... I have to assume law-abiding gun owners don’t want criminals to have guns.” At question time, there were only a couple of comments on the bill, both positive.

Things were tougher at the next stop. Manchin hadn’t finished his summary of the legislation when he was interrupted by four men in the back row and an elderly woman sitting alone. “How does your bill make these students or any other students more safe?” shouted the woman. A man wearing a black NRA t-shirt with a picture of an AR-15 rifle, yelled, “If one of those teachers had been armed, he could’ve stopped this.” A moment later: “Why pass another gun law when there are already fifty thousand gun laws on the books?” And: “What part of ‘do not infringe’ do you not understand?”

Manchin tried to reason with them. He noted that a recent Al Qaeda tape urged would-be terrorists to load up on arms at American gun shows. They would have none of it—soon they were railing about the “Operation Fast and Furious” scandal, “abortions killing thirty thousand babies a day,” and so on.
Manchin changed direction. “We might just have to respectfully disagree,” he said and went on to implicitly rebuke some of his colleagues. “The worst thing that can happen to me or anybody in public office is that, ... if you vote against us, we get to come home to our family,” he said. “But for me to do what I know is right ... and [then to say] I’m scared because someone is going to portray that as I done something else?” If disingenuous criticism could stop him from taking action, he concluded, “there’s no need for me to be there—there’s no need to run for public office.”

A few other voices started chiming in on his behalf. One woman said she was a “gun person” but agreed with the need for background checks. Another said: “I have my gun to protect me from the drug dealers next door, and no one’s coming for my gun. This is called common-sense law.” When the elderly woman yelled at him again, Manchin suggested, smiling, that she might be happier moving to Texas.

By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him. After all, polls had found a vast majority of West Virginians supported his proposal. If he could pull this off in West Virginia, surely his colleagues could manage it in New Hampshire or Montana. And if Bloomberg and the mom-activists get their way, they may soon have to. “Sure, you get a few [opponents], and I understand that,” Manchin told me. “But it’s not the majority. The majority support a reasonable, responsible approach to what we’re doing. But you gotta be willing to come out here and talk about it. If you won’t talk about it, you got problems."

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Jun 26, 2013

A Shul in a Forest: A Ramah Haiku

A Shul in a Forest: A Ramah Haiku © Rabbi Menachem Creditor

I can see the trees
right outside the closed window.
Pews don't sway with wind.

from Keshet: Mazel Tov! #LoveIsLove




Two years ago this summer, I stood under a chuppah with my wife. Because we live in Massachusetts, we are "lucky" that our relationship is recognized by our state. However, under the current law, we are denied 1,138 federal rights that our straight friends are automatically granted when they wed.

Today, this discrimination is over!
We are elated that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of fairness and equality by striking down DOMA and Prop 8. Our ancient Jewish values teach us that we all are created B'tzelem Elohim (in God's Image) and our current laws violated this sacred principle by refusing to recognize and protect LGBTQ relationships.
The overwhelming majority of American Jews support equal marriage (81%, 2012 Public Religion Research Institute) and this is a proud day for us all.
On this anniversary, I celebrate not only our relationship, but the hundreds of thousands of other LGBTQ Americans who will be able to access this fundamental right.
Throughout the day, we will be updating this page with information about public celebrations and resources:
Ready to tie the knot?

Thank you for all you've done to help us reach this day. Onward together to full equality!



Idit Klein

Executive Director, Keshet



Your Jewish guide for celebrating PRIDE










Stephen Colbert deserves another Peabody for "Truthinews"

t/y Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler for sharing this: "“I wake up each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.” — E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web and Elements of Style"

Jun 25, 2013

Pinchas links


Ynetnews: "Yesh Atid bill: Israel should be Jewish by law"

Yesh Atid bill: Israel should be Jewish by law

MK Ruth Calderon submits bill giving Declaration of Independence status of basic law thus formally establishing State of Israel's Jewish character
Moran Azulay
Published: 06.25.13, 21:32 / Israel News
Yesh Atid 's Ruth Calderon has submitted a bill giving the Declaration of Independence the legal status of a basic law, formally establishing Israel as a Jewish state.

The bill was proposed as part of joint efforts with the Habayit Hayehudi party on a new "nation state" bill. This is the first time the Knesset has been asked to enact into law Israel's Jewish character.

In the explanation to the bill titled "Basic Law: The Declaration of Independence," Calderon states that "in the absence of a constitution, the Declaration of Independence is a legal document which establishes very important basic principles concerning the State's identity.

For years, courts have looked to this document when deciding on various issues and that is why we are proposing to give the Declaration of Independence which represents the state's creed, the status of a basic law."

The bill aims to formally establish that the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people. However, MK Calderon stressed that the term Jewish state does not refer the Jewish religion but to the Jewish people and culture.

The State of Israel is committed to safeguarding the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of race, religion or sex, it was emphasized. "The Declaration of Independence explicitly states that Israel is envisaged as a Jewish state that is also committed to equal rights."

It was further stated, "The Declaration of Independence is a balanced, Jewish and democratic document based on the principles of justice and equality which are no less relevant today than they were at the time of its drafting. If we do not set the principles by which we want to live, they will be set for us. "

Calderon is also set to propose the "nation state bill" together with Habayit Hayehudi's Ayelet Shaked.

Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh (Hadash) slammed the bill and said, "We don't need laws that are designed to establish the hegemony of the majority, but need to protect the minority when racism rages. The Knessethas become a racist legislation machine."

Pinchas 5773: "The Blessings of Brokenness"

Pinchas 5773: "The Blessings of Brokenness
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The great Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once said that reading a translation is like kissing through a veil.  The beginning of Parashat Pinchas illustrates this quite clearly.  And not only does the biblical Hebrew lose its power refracted into the vernacular, but even if the Hebrew of a handheld Chumash is consulted, there is much missing which can only be experienced by direct contact with the Torah scroll itself.

First the language.  We read (translate) the following:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Phinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My Jealousy. Say, therefore, 'I grant him My 'Covenant of Shalom'. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he was jealous for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.' (Numbers 25:10-13)"

The beginning of Parashat Pinchas recounts in only the vaguest of terms that which Pinchas actually did.  He killed an Israelite who was publicly licentious with a Moabite woman.  Pinchas struck them both through with a spear.  This act, incredibly violent, is narrated in the conclusion of the previous Torah portion, separated from ours, perhaps in order to demonstrate an ancient discomfort connecting God's blessing to Pinchas' violence.  

The word for God's "jealousy" is also curious, offered sometimes as "passion" or "zealousness."  But the ugliness of jealousy captures the text's rawness better than those other terms, and still falls short.  God is jealous, and Pinchas' act is connected to that angry, self-doubting emotion.  Whenever Israel cheats on God, straying from theological monogamy, God gets jealous. Over and over throughout Israelite/Jewish history, God experiences this.

Indeed, the text might be suggesting that through Pinchas' ugly act, our jealous God learns.  

God's Jealousy is manifest on a human scale through Pinchas' violence.  Perhaps the Covenant of Peace is one which God only recognizes as necessary when the raw divine emotion actualizes through Pinchas and wreaks havoc in the human sphere.  It is as if God says to God's Self, "Gevalt.  Look what jealousy, connected with Me, does on earth."  Pinchas teaches God through demonstrating the wrong example, an imperfect response to personal pain.  He certainly needs God's Covenant of Peace - as does God in moments of Divine Anger.

It is just too easy to think small and foment pain in the world.  If I feel threatened, my natural inclination is to lash out.  Our vision of God, connected in its Essence to our self-understandings, makes this very clear.  If God learns by observing violence in God's name, how can we not?  Limited religious vision in our day and age results in violence.  Wouldn't we accept the Covenant of Shalom if offered? 

Now to the Biblical text itself.  The traditional calligraphy of the Torah intentionally includes two oddities in the opening verses.  The 'yud' in Pinchas' name is incredibly small, and the 'vav' of the word 'Shalom' is broken in half.

The small 'yud' is connected to tradition of biblical names which refer to God's own Name.  Avram becomes 'Avraham', where the letter 'heh' is part of God's Mysterious Name, and Ya'akov becomes 'Yisrael', including the name 'El' from 'Elohim', another Name for God.  Here, Pinchas' name includes a holy 'yud', but that visual connection to God's Name is reduced.  Perhaps Pinchas' essential holy connection is reduced through the smallness of his act.  Violence is effective and flashy, but not sustainable, not healthy - and not holy.  Pinchas cares deeply about God but fails to be a partner in conversation, forgetting to mediate the intensity of Divine emotionality with the individuality of being an other to God's Self.  

Rashi suggests that Pinchas wasn't officially a priest until this episode, and so we might imagine that Pinchas was jealous of the honorific, the respect, the public acknowledgment of being a servant for God in the world.  And perhaps his violent act suggested to God the need for more structure, more rules.  Being a priest included certain garb, certain rituals, certain decorum - all rationales for curbing the powerful emotional instability Pinchas (and others) demonstrate.

The broken 'vav' in the word 'Shalom' means that God's blessing to Pinchas is a Covenant of Broken Peace. When we believe we contribute to the world and that we are whole as we do so, we forget that the world which calls our attention so loudly needs the care of a similarly broken soul.  As Parker Palmer suggests in A Hidden Wholeness:

"Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness... need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life. (p.5)"

May we all be blessed by God's Shalom, the awareness that righteous indignation has its place but is anything but is divorced from the sacred when it manifests as violence.

May we remember that our vulnerable selves are holy and that the wholeness we seek is sought too by the Holy One.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor

To join Rabbi Creditor's email listsend a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Jun 20, 2013

My OpEd in the J: "Sadly, Conservative Judaism’s lead ship is sinking fast"

Sadly, Conservative Judaism's lead ship is sinking fast
by rabbi menachem creditor

In February 1913, Rabbi Solomon Schechter founded the United Synagogue of America — which in 1991 became the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — to "advance the cause of traditional Judaism in America and strengthen the conservative tendency in Israel."

Schechter's vision of traditional Judaism lives on in communities, but the organization he founded has lost its mandate to fulfill this mission.

Last week, USCJ closed down Koach, the college outreach organization of the Conservative movement. One of many anguished Conservative Jewish college students on Facebook interpreted this as the USCJ "signing their own death warrant."

9_avatar_creditor_withnameWere this the only recent experience of the USCJ cutting off its own future, one would already worry. But Koach is not an exception to the rule. It demonstrates the pervasive reality of too few USCJ staff spread way too thinly to meet a too-meager definition of movement success.

Honestly, as a product of the Conservative movement, I am very saddened by this. In moments of budgetary woe, it is all about money. But that cuts both ways: Lack of funding demonstrates lack of resonance and vitality. The USCJ has for decades failed to actualize the vibrancy of Conservative Judaism's founding ideas and is currently dying the slow, painful death of a thousand paper cuts.
The greatest tragedy of all this is that it need not be.

The American Conservative movement is declining numerically not because Schechter's vision is meaningless. It is because we, as Conservative Jewish leaders, have forgotten how right he was, what a gift Conservative Judaism truly is. We have made the mistake of letting our nostalgia for the institutions of the past and personal affection for one another (not to mention a bit of ego and turf-battling) get in the way of holding our institutions accountable when they fail.

As soon-to-be-former director of Koach, Rabbi Elyse Winick, wrote in her announcement of the closure: "Tens of thousands of students and dozens of professionals have been part of this sacred endeavor. All of our lives have been transformed and elevated by the experiences we have shared. We are better people for it. We are better Jews. We have much to be grateful for."

Though perennially underfunded, Koach (and its ancestor, the similarly barely supported Conservative movement college network Atid), "turned on" Conservative Jews during their formative years on campus. Untold numbers of Koachniks have become rabbis, educators and leaders in and out of Conservative Judaism's orbit.

Koach was succeeding. Not enough, but more than its funding warranted. That USCJ closed down the most transformative of all its programs, while Chabad and the Orthodox campus outreach professionals are exploding with funding, is so very, very sad.

It would have been better if the USCJ had announced its own closure and presented a plan for Koach to expand its vital work under the aegis of another agency, or launched Koach as an independent organization.

Whereas denominations matter less and less to Jews (and Americans, according to recent Pew Center studies), the search for meaning and connection is on the upswing. Schechter's vision truly defined American Judaism, transcending label and brand. The bravery of Open Orthodoxy and the assertive "re-traditioning" of Reform Judaism speak to the enduring power of his vision, which has nothing to do with denominations and institutions.

The products of Conservative Judaism include Reconstructionism, the JCC move-ment and the havurah movement. In fact, most of the post-denominational energy in the United States is also being led by leaders trained within the Conserv-ative movement.

This should make Conservative Jews very proud, and keep us very humble. A denomination is, after all, utilitarian. It serves to strengthen the particular spiritual identity of its affiliated communities in an effort to work for the betterment of the world.

Fewer and fewer synagogues are affiliated with USCJ, and few of those affiliated shuls fully pay their assessed dues. It is only a matter of time before USCJ closes its doors, or places all of itself into one of its programs (for example, USCJ's Sulam consulting, a leadership development program that supports congregations).

USCJ is a fading national institution that has jettisoned what the Conservative movement needs most: a future.

I do hope for, and have long worked toward, a healthy Conservative Movement.  (Among other efforts, I and others are working to support #MasortiUSA, a new U.S. student-run campus network.) The idea of Conservative Judaism could live without institutions, but Conservative Judaism is a path to God, a spiritually demanding and rewarding journey that deserves better institutional support and leadership than it has received in recent memory. 

Schechter's dream still awaits fulfillment.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and founder of ShefaNetwork: The Conservative Movement Dreaming from Within.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

To join Rabbi Creditor's email listsend a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Total Pageviews

Letter to the Forward in response to "Whose art is it anyway? Inside the cultural battle between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters"

Though I appreciate Mira Fox considering my music part of the artistic canon (" Whose art is it anyway? Inside the cultural battle betw...