Jewish mothers to raise their voices against guns

NEW YORK, April 24 (JTA) — Loren Lieb laughed as she read a sign on her office wall drawn by her 7-year-old son, but she knows his motivation is no laughing matter.

“One way I can make a difference is by marching for no guns,” wrote Joshua Stepakoff, one of three children injured by a spray of bullets leveled at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles last August.

Lieb sat patiently as her son recovered from two gunshot wounds, but she will stand in solidarity with thousands of others in a demonstration calling for gun control legislation.

The Million Mom March, to be held on Mother’s Day, May 14, has garnered more support than originally expected by its creator, New Jersey resident Donna Dees-Thomases, who initiated the march after watching the aftermath of the JCC shooting on television.

Although the demonstration’s name rests on the reasoning that the image of mothers protesting can be a powerful, emotional weapon, both men and women will participate.

More than 100,000 are expected to descend on the National Mall in Washington in an effort to bring the issue to the forefront of election-year debates. Synagogues and Jewish organizations from around the country are sending delegations, and local communities are also planning smaller marches.

Among the issues the marchers are pushing for are:

• A “cooling off,” or waiting, period as well as background checks for gun purchases;

• Licenses, registration and safety locks for all handguns;

• Limits on purchases to one handgun per month;

• Better enforcement of current gun laws.

The pending event seems to have bridged the gaps that often separate Jews of different streams. Endorsers include organizations normally polarized by religion and politics, ranging from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union.

“In the Jewish community, this is not a divisive issue,” said Marc Israel, director of congregational relations for the Religious Action Center, adding that the Jewish response to the march has been “tremendous.”

“There was the hate crime in Chicago against Jews coming home from Shabbat services,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, referring to last summer’s attack on Orthodox Jews. “We’ve seen it touch our community very profoundly.”

In Los Angeles, about 30 mothers have been meeting at the JCC every two weeks since the shooting, according to Francine Naor, whose daughters escaped the shooting unharmed. Wanting to be involved in the march, the group has raised $10,000 to fly families to Washington.

“Something like this can’t happen and then you don’t respond to it,” said Lieb.

Statistics say youth are at risk as potential victims of gun violence. According to a 1997 report by the Children’s Defense Fund, 12 children die each day from gunfire. The FBI reports that 65 percent of all murders in 1998 were committed with a firearm.

“As long as we have guns readily available, then we have not yet, as humankind, achieved sanity in this world,” said Lois Shallit, executive director of the New York City chapter of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Two days before her younger son’s Bar Mitzvah in 1990, her oldest son, David Tzvi, was shot to death during a robbery by six teen-agers.

“We had a Bar Mitzvah on Saturday and a funeral on Sunday,” Shallit said.

Chapter members will be in Washington, marching in memory of David.

As the largest Jewish women’s organization in the country, Hadassah considers it a responsibility to participate in the Million Mom March.

“Could I quote you a [biblical] text about guns? Probably not,” said Tana Senn, director of Hadassah’s National American Affairs/Domestic Policy Department. “But it’s inherently Jewish to want to protect the Jewish community and communities at large.”

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta is planning to march in Washington in the name of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah of saving a life. His father was shot to death in January 1999.

“I lived a sheltered suburban lifestyle,” said Mosbacher. Before his father’s murder, he added, “the issue didn’t really resonate for me.”

One year later, Mosbacher feels differently.

Gail Powers, Million Mom March regional coordinator for California, Nevada and Arizona, said her son, Nathan, did not suffer any physical wounds when he escaped the North Valley JCC shooting unharmed, but his emotional scars have not yet healed.

“I didn’t get involved until this happened in my backyard,” Powers said.

Being of service to one’s community and tikkun olam, which means repairing the world, “are Jewish values that I learned late in life. I’d like to give those values to my children.”

The coordinator for the state of Florida, Melissa Jacobson, lost two friends to an accidental shooting when she was 11 years old. Now that she has her own child, his safety is foremost in her mind.

She said the lack of adequate gun control legislation has bothered her for some time yet she did not pursue any course of action until now.

“I feel I have to set an example for my kids,” said Jacobson, who is expecting her second child in August. “As a Jewish parent, it’s the ultimate responsibility that I have to protect them.”

Powers echoed the sentiment.

“One mom is a powerful voice.”

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