Newtown: The Selma of Our Generation
by Harold S. Geller
Just a week after the unspeakable mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I traveled to Newtown, CT, to help organize a musical evening of remembrance and healing in support of the community. This event took place at Congregation Adath Israel, Newtown’s Conservative synagogue, and featured artists and cantors from throughout the country. More than 200 people attended.
Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel started the evening with a Havdalah ceremony, offering a moving description of the elements of the service:
With the candle we bring new light, and new hope, at a moment where a lot of things became not only clear, to us, but to all Americans.
We have the besamim, the incense, which give such a wonderful smell. We are taught that we receive an extra soul on Shabbat, and when Shabbat leaves, we take some of the incense, to bring some comfort to ourselves. When I smell these incents I recall the souls that were taken from us so cruelly in just under 5 minutes the morning of December 14th.
It is said that “Yayin yismach lev Adam,” wine brings a bit of joy to the heart, and we certainly need it.
Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles reiterated that we were all there to help the residents of Newtown bear this unthinkable, unprecedented burden. He offered an updated take on the Talmudic rabbis’ saying, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh,” the idea that all Jews are responsible for one another, suggesting that in light of such a tragedy, and as part of the experience in Newtown, we say, “Kol B’nai Adam” – all of the human family. We are all responsible for one another, sharing this journey of life together. We are, all of us, connected.
I had the moving opportunity to meet and speak with people who were impacted by this tragedy, including Rabbi Praver, who told me that the town’s houses of worship are very close to one another, and that the whole town is very much united and not separated by various faiths and beliefs in the wake of this community-wide tragedy. That evening, I saw children – those who were in Sandy Hook Elementary School, hiding in the dark closets of their classrooms – smiling, singing, dancing, and just being kids as they listened to the music of Rabbi Chasen, The New World Chorus, Ellen Allard, Noah Aronson, and Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray, among others. It was a moving experience, the beginning of the healing process.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, died December 23, 1972; his yartzeit, which is on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, this year falls on December 31st and marks the 40th anniversary of his passing. Rabbi Heschel marched in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King, Jr., political leaders, civil rights leaders, and leaders of faith communities on March 21, 1965. He later wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” The recent events in Connecticut have caused us to find opportunities of prayer and unity, to uplift and stand united with the communities of Newtown – and Columbine, and Aurora, and all those others affected by gun violence – to create a grassroots effort.
In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, we must establish a grassroots effort to encourage education about gun safety and responsible behavior. We can emulate successful models, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded by Candice Lightner in 1980 after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, and AIDS Lifeline, conceived in 1987 as a community education project by James W. Bunn and Nancy Saslow, which became a health education and public awareness campaign on television stations across the U.S.
Certainly, the drafters of the Second Amendment could never have envisioned the devastation brought down upon 20 innocent first-graders by an assault rifle designed for military use, firing up to 250 rounds per minute. If God is, as I believe (from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and process theology), “an indwelling lure that pulls us toward goodness, towards decency, towards kindness,” then we are called to fix the brokenness of the world through acts of loving-kindness, a modern interpretation of “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai,” a verse from our liturgy. It is a time for faith communities and their leaders to spark actions of the heart, mind, and hand, following in the steps of Rabbi Heschel and praying with our feet.
Harold S. Geller is affiliated with Temple Emanu El in Edison, N.J., and Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J. He is also a member of the advisory committee of Kesher Shir, an initiative that brings together Jewish musicians to study, compose, build relationships, and challenge the status quo, in order to foster lasting musical change in communal prayer.