WASHINGTON, May 15 (JTA) — When Elaine Bayer heard about the Million Mom March for gun control, she thought of two families—her Hadassah family and her own extended family.
Bayer, of the Chicago suburb of Homewood, Ill., called march organizer Donna Dees-Thomases in New Jersey and told her to get in touch with the national office of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Then Bayer decided she would organize her own family.
‘I’m going to bring everybody to Washington,’ ” Bayer said to herself and her family.
So on Sunday, Mother’s Day, Bayer — surrounded by seven family members, including one grandchild in a stroller — joined other Jewish mothers from across the country to give Congress an earful in support of gun control and safety legislation.
Standing on the National Mall within view of Capitol Hill, thousands of members of synagogues and Hadassah chapters stood with hundreds of thousands of Americans, calling on Congress to enact “sensible gun control laws.”
Marchers voiced support for background checks at gun shows, registration of firearms and licensing of gun owners, as well as safety locks on handguns.
Congress’ inaction on the issue is unacceptable, they said, pledging to make gun policy an issue in the November elections.
“Make this moral issue political,” Rosanne Selfon, vice president of Women of Reform Judaism, urged at a pre-march event.
“We have a moral obligation that emanates from Torah and God. Today is the day to make our legislators listen.”
Rabbi Avi Magid of Temple Emanu-El of Honolulu, who had vowed to attend the march “no matter what,” said members of his community are upset precisely because their legislators don’t listen.
Even though Hawaii has some of the country’s most stringent laws, many in the community are angry that the state legislature will not pass a law to require a license to buy ammunition.
The Jewish community is required to do what it can to bring peace into people’s lives, Magid said, adding, “It’s really quite simple.”
The Jewish community appears galvanized and mobilized around gun control, perhaps in part because of last August’s shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif.
That incident, with the nationally televised images of a daisy chain of children being led away from the center by policemen, actually gave Dees-Thomases the idea for the Million Mom March.
Legislators in Washington, however, are unlikely to do more than listen to the demands of the marchers, as the chance of any gun control legislation passing this session is minimal.
A major bill on gun control has been languishing in Congress for more than nine months.
Nevertheless, people like Gail Powers of Los Angeles believe the issue will be a decisive one in congressional races.
Powers, whose son was in a classroom at the North Valley JCC during the shooting, got involved because she didn’t want another parent to experience the fear she did.
She said she is “amazed and astonished” at the unity of the different Jewish movements on this issue.
Powers started out as an “e-mail person” for the march. She later got more involved, becoming the California coordinator and the western region coordinator for the march, and helped bring more than a thousand people to Washington.
The North Valley JCC shooting had also brought the issue home for Bayer.
“This is not just something that happens to other people,” she learned.
Bayer joined more than 500 Hadassah members, some wearing personalized white-and-pink “Million Mom March” T-shirts.
Small groups representing synagogues or Jewish organizations from around the country came with banners and signs, dotting the mall grounds.
Members of Temple Sholom in Broomall, Pa., clustered around their sign: “Whoever saves ONE life, it is as if he saved the ENTIRE world. CONTROL GUNS…SAVE THE WORLD!”
Most Jewish marchers proudly sported “Million Mom March” pins and T-shirts, which show pink flowers wrapped around and shooting out of a gun.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who spoke at the rally, said gun control is a compelling issue in the Jewish community, but until now it hasn’t translated into anything concrete.
“Now I hope it will make its way into the Jewish consciousness and the Jewish legislative agenda,” Yoffie told JTA.
Yoffie also encouraged coalition-building on gun control. “We’re too small to make the change ourselves,” he said.
Addressing the rally, he said, “We are ready for a knockdown, drag-out, no-holds-barred battle against the NRA, which is the real criminals’ lobby in this country, and which is drenched in the blood of murdered children.”
At an interfaith service just before the rally and march began, Rabbi Marc Israel of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center urged more action from the Jewish community, saying it is not enough to avoid violence, but people must be “rodfei shalom,” pursuers of peace.
“True peace can only be found when our families and our communities are complete, when gun violence no longer shatters our lives and the lives of our loved ones,” he said.
Smaller rallies were held in some 70 other communities around the country, including several in California.
In Oakland, Calif., Jewish involvement was significant at a rally of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people — from the shofar that sounded a call to action to the cutting-edge Jewish rock sounds of singer Bruce Burger, better known as RebbeSoul.
Carol Kingsley, the widow of former regional president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Berman, gave a moving speech in which she spoke of her husband’s death.
Berman was killed during a 1993 mass shooting in San Francisco.
“People who are shot are not the only victims,” said Kingsley, who now heads the AJCongress’s Jack Berman Advocacy Center. “There are also those who are left behind — there is long suffering, deep pain.”
Among the audience, there were those who attended because of their own experience with gun violence.
For Lisa Cohen, chair of the South Peninsula Jewish Community Relations Council, the fact that the march took place on Mother’s Day was especially poignant.
“My mother committed suicide with a handgun when I was 15,” Cohen said. “If she hadn’t had that gun, I think that maybe we could have got her the help she needed.”
In Los Angeles, as in Washington, opponents of gun control held a counterdemonstration under the banner of the Second Amendment Sisters.
There was no contact between the opposing sides, separated by police cordons, but some Million Mom participants expressed resentment at signs trying to link their cause to the Holocaust. One sign at the counterdemonstration showed a large Star of David with the words, “Never Again.”
Another proclaimed: “Nazis Had Gun Control.”
In Louisville, Ky, the local Jewish community relations council and several synagogues recruited participants for both the Louisville rally, which drew 300 people, and the march in Washington.
A delegation of 17 from Louisville, led by Rabbi Gaylia Rooks, opted for the big event in Washington.
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles, the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and the Community of Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.)