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New Jersey Rabbi Determined Not To Stand Idly By Gun Violence

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher works across traditional divides to create change.

CREDIT: Bettina Weiss.

He sat behind an L-shaped desk, with an outdated computer monitor to his right, decorated with post-it notes. Between sips of tea, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher shared his feelings on activism and anger. “We talk in community organizing about words that have connotations that people think of as negative and how we can use them in a positive way,” he said. “Whether that’s ‘anger,’ or ‘power,’ these are words that people think are bad things. They’re morally neutral. The question is, what do you do with them?”

There’s no question about what Mosbacher has decided to do with his power or his anger. As the Rabbi at Beth Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey, Mosbacher understands his power in speaking to his congregation. “I think that people in my congregation are looking for meaning. I really believe that. And that if I’m not talking about what’s going on in their lives and in the real world, then I think Judaism will be more irrelevant to them,” he told Generation Progress.

“I think about my sermons and my teaching often in two frames. I’m thinking either what are people already talking about that they expect to have a Jewish perspective on or what are people not talking about but they should be. I take that really, really seriously,” he said. “I think if we’re just talking about values from 36,000 feet, we’re not going to be connecting with people.”

Mosbacher sees his position as a faith leader as one of obligation. “I fundamentally believe that for me, and for leaders of faith for sure, that’s part of the prophetic mandate in which we are inheritors. I am not a prophet or a son of a prophet, but I believe that religious traditions call us to make the world better because we’re in it. And if we’re not, then we should just meet at Stateline Diner and have some dessert,” he said, laughing.

He sees issues of social justice and policy from a 360 degree view, provides a philosophical understanding of human purpose, and accepts the complexity of today’s biggest social issues.

Seventeen years ago, Mosbacher’s father, Lester Mosbacher, was shot and killed in a petty robbery at his small business on Chicago’s South Side the day before his 53rd birthday. The pain, anger, and sadness Mosbacher experienced in the aftermath of the tragedy still remain.

“[My father’s death] hasn’t always motivated me to act. I haven’t always been an activist on this issue. For the most of the past 17 years I have not been an activist,” Mosbacher said. “I think you have to figure out what you’re going to do with the emotions that you’re feeling, how you are going to channel them into meaningful action. And that’s, I guess, after Newtown what for me it was a little bit of a dam breaking.”

Mosbacher is a member of the National Strategy Team for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith- and community-based organizations.

“It’s a community organization of churches and synagogues and mosques and people of faith and no particular faith, working together on issues of common concern to try to get at root causes as opposed to direct service,” Mosbacher told Generation Progress.

The IAF is not a gun violence prevention organization; however, it has been an effective platform for Mosbacher’s gun violence prevention activism. Mosbacher serves as national co-chair for the IAF’s “Don’t Stand Idly By” campaign. Named after the quote from Leviticus 19:15, “Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” the campaign seeks to address gun violence by encouraging manufacturers to emphasize safety.

Mosbacher’s approach is one of working across traditional divides to accomplish change. In his role as a Rabbi, he pushes the envelope to connect the beliefs of Judaism with contemporary issues. In his role as an advocate, he creates unexpected partnerships to make progress.

Supply and Demand Advocacy

Mosbacher and the “Don’t Stand Idly By” campaign are going right to the source: firearm production. The group knows it’s unrealistic to shut down the manufacturing, sale, and use of weapons in the United States. In fact, advocacy groups across the country aren’t advocating for such extremes either. As the NRA and pro-gun activists repeat hyperbolic rhetoric about “liberals trying to take away your guns,” gun violence prevention advocates shake their heads: gun violence prevention isn’t about taking away rights, but mitigating possibilities for disaster.

The IAF knows this. In response, the group is focused on the business of firearm production. “We are not naïve. We know the only way that [gun companies] are going to make change is if they see it in their self interest. So that’s how we got to the purchasing power angle because we figured if we could affect their bottom line, they would listen,” said Mosbacher.

There’s an eerie aspect to the image of Rabbi Mosbacher, whose father was shot and killed with a revolver, sitting across tables from gun manufacturers and touring factories that produce firearms. The way he sees it, he doesn’t have a choice.

“One of my teachers said, ‘We have no permanent allies and no permanent enemies.’ If you can do the right thing, even though a lot of what you do is not what we would have you do, we will say thank you, and we will work with you, and we will celebrate with you, even if we have to-”  the Rabbi paused and swallowed loudly—indicating that advocates may have to swallow their pride and work with firearm manufacturers in order to make progress.

Even if they’re only a temporary ally, firearm production companies have the ability to innovate the gun market to be safer. “People are going to own guns in this country for the foreseeable future, so let’s give people the option to buy technology that’s safe,” said Mosbacher.

Smarter Guns and Safer Officers

Law enforcement officials are a complicated piece of the gun violence prevention puzzle. Because they are often on the front lines of gun violence, they have a substantial stake in making people safer. However, they also use guns and are armed. Mosbacher understands the potential of this partnership, especially when it comes to smart gun technology.

Don’t Stand Idly By is focusing on the creation of smart gun technology in order to inspire change and evolution in the firearm market and provide safer alternatives to gun buyers. Adhering to its belief that there are no permanent allies or enemies, the campaign hosted a private gun show on May 21 for police departments and gun manufacturers.

“We had been meeting all these police departments that were interested in the strategy but had never seen a smart gun, actually in real life. And we had been meeting all these smart gun companies, so we said let’s bring them together. We had five companies and nine police departments on the police gun range in New Rochelle,” Mosbacher told Generation Progress.

“All of a sudden what you had was what we hoped would happen. The police were saying, ‘Could you make it like this? Could you make the grip like this?’ and the designers were saying, ‘Sure I had never thought about it like that. What else would you need?’”

“This is the conversation that should be happening and could raise all boats,” Mosbacher said. “I think it would make Americans safer, it would make our cops safer.”

New Jersey is the home of a controversial smart gun amendment. The legislation, written by State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), required that that when smart gun technology becomes available, only those guns will be sold in stores. Gun shop owners opposed the legislation, but because smart gun technology isn’t available yet, they have not had to change their inventory. In November, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee approved a revised version of the bill, which requires gun shops to carry smart gun technology when it is available but allows them to carry other weapons as well.

This change provides buyers with options, which is exactly what Mosbacher and the IAF want. Despite the rhetoric that gun violence prevention organizations are trying to take away guns, these new policies actually add more guns into the market.

“If you don’t want one of these guns, then don’t buy it. We haven’t always been, in the NJ gun violence orbit, we haven’t always been in line with the other groups,” said Mosbacher. “Some other groups say, ‘Yes this should be the only gun available,’ and we say, ‘In the world as it is, that’s not going to be the way it is.’ We’re not saying you have to buy a smart gun, but why would you prevent people who have three-year-olds in their house from having a smart gun?”

Washington, D.C.

While advocating for smart gun technology, activists are undeniably playing with the economic side of gun violence. The firearm and ammunition industry in the United States is worth $6 billion. An industry with so much monetary capital indisputably has enormous political capital, too. Because of this, Mosbacher and his colleagues are certain that the President should do more to oversee the industry.

“There are things that public officials can do, and they don’t need to work with Congress, although Congress could do a lot. It’s not that we don’t think Congress can act; it’s just that they’ve decided not to act,” said Mosbacher.

In October, more than two dozen members of IAF traveled to Washington, D.C. to call on President Obama to support tougher firearm restrictions.

“This is what we said to the President,” Mosbacher told Generation Progress, as he held up a big white poster board. “’Stop Whining!’ Even some people in our organization asked, ‘Are we really going to say that to the President?’ Well yeah! Because he’s not doing his job!”

Although the IAF has big name supporters that range from Mayors to Senators, gaining traction within the White House has been a challenge for the group.

“We’ve been trying to get at the White House for over a year or so, and the reality is, we don’t like to stand outside of buildings and yell at people. That’s actually not our strategy,” Mosbacher said, laughing. “Our first strategy is to be inside the building. And it’s okay if we’re inside the building quietly. The White House action was about trying to draw attention because we felt like we were hearing the President talk about his anger, over and over and over again, and blaming Congress but not using the power we think he has to act.”

Congress’ inaction has inspired frustration across ideologies and political affiliations. One day after 14 people were murdered and 21 others were injured by an armed couple in San Bernardino, California, the Senate failed to pass two separate gun violence prevention measures.

Most recently, after weeks of negotiation, Republican and Democratic leaders agreed on a $1.1 trillion bill to fund the government until October 2016. Despite substantial efforts from Doctors for America, an amendment that blocks the Center for Disease Control from researching gun violence remained on the bill.

Optimism and Hope

Although progress is slow, Mosbacher celebrates the little victories. “For me, the reality is that nothing is going to bring my dad back. Nothing is going to bring back my parents’ love affair. To the extent that I am a good husband and a good father, I learned a lot of that from my dad,” he said.

“My faith tradition asserts the radical idea that the world as it is does not have to be this way, that we can make the world better. That we’ve been given the tools to improve the world—that gives me hope going forward,” he said. “What bolsters that hope is knowing that the world has changed. We have a long way to go but that people, institutions, and organizations have been part of making the world better. And that gives me hope.”

He remains critical while practicing optimism. Change is a team effort, and Mosbacher attributes his success as an activist and leader to collaboration. “I do believe that individuals can affect change in the world, but if you want to be powerful, you’ve got to find partners. Preferably diverse partners that share common concerns with you and with whom you can show that you’re serious, meaningful, and powerful. That whoever you’re trying to engage, whether it’s elected officials or the Ford motor company, they have to know that they’re speaking to power.”

Power is not limited to those with institutional control but rather can be applied to a variety of passions, abilities, and directions. “Talking to optimistic young people gives me hope,” Mosbacher said. “I believe that college students and Millenials have the ability to be really powerful on a whole range of issues that they care about especially if they’re organized and especially if they work in partnership with other people.”

What’s Mosbacher’s advice to Millenials? “Don’t be afraid to work across lines of race, and faith, and class.”

“You’ll be more powerful if you do.”

Bettina Weiss is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering gun violence prevention. Follow her on Twitter at @bweiss22.

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