January 20, 2019

Carrying a Cynical Heart Won’t Stop Gun Violence

Rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

This year, I was especially looking forward to Yom Kippur. September had been exceptionally busy, and the downtime was a welcome change of pace. Between the fast and the time spent in temple, Yom Kippur worked as intended — I had some rare time for authentic self-reflection. 

As the director of a small but dynamic gun violence prevention organization in Washington, D.C., I spend my days developing lifesaving policies and fighting the gun lobby. I am constantly dealing with tragedy and its aftermath — constantly meeting survivors of gun violence, working with those who have been affected, consoling families changed forever. Sometimes, that constant exposure to tragedy makes me create a wall that separates my work from my human emotions. 

I don’t intentionally create that wall. The separation happens subtly over time. It enables me to keep working in times of high anxiety, but it also can breed acceptance of the status quo and, even worse, cynicism. Cynicism is the brain telling the heart not to get too hopeful because nothing is going to change. Cynicism can be self-protective, but it thwarts effective advocacy. 

This Yom Kippur, I vowed that in the new year I would bring down the wall. I vowed that I would not allow the serious nature of my work to blunt my emotions or muddy my dream: a world free from gun violence. I would not give in to cynicism.    

Little did I know that my plans for the new year would be tested immediately.

We awoke the morning of Oct. 2 — shortly after Yom Kippur — to horrific news out of Las Vegas. As the day unfolded and the extent of the carnage became clear, emotions came in waves: grief, anger and, yes, cynicism. How could this happen again and at such a scale? Will we ever learn from our mistakes? Is there really hope for change? 

As I felt the wall start to go up, I stumbled across a blog post written a couple of days before Yom Kippur by Rabbi Naomi Levy, the spiritual leader of Nashuva in Los Angeles. She wrote about the inability to connect with her emotions after her father was shot and killed when she was a young girl. She said that the most important theme of Yom Kippur comes down to this line in Ezekiel: “I will remove your heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh.” 

She goes on to write, “Cutting through the heart of stone and arriving at the heart of flesh isn’t a one-time job. The stone heart isn’t gone forever. At every loss, at every disappointment, at every new challenge, it’s there ready to return, ready to take its familiar place inside you. And it takes so much courage to stay alive and soft and vulnerable.”   

As we face the challenges presented by Las Vegas and the terrible toll of gun violence in America, it is imperative that we cut through our hearts of stone and tear down our protective walls. It is imperative that we stay open, vulnerable and confident in our ability to make a difference. We must allow ourselves to feel the urgent pain of gun violence, the human cost, the true toll. And we must use those powerful emotions to summon courage, optimism and commitment. 

Here is what gives me optimism in this dark hour:

First, research shows that comprehensive approaches to gun violence prevention work. Permit-to-purchase laws, prohibitions on domestic abusers possessing guns, and policies that remove guns from those in crisis — known as the Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO) — among others, have proven effective. We know what to do to save lives. 

Second, a majority of Americans support responsible approaches to gun violence prevention. Polls show strong bipartisan support for policies such as universal background checks and ERPO — even among gun owners. 

Finally, change already is happening. Individual states are leading the way in enacting innovative and effective gun violence prevention policies. After the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012, some states enacted new universal background-check provisions. Many states have enacted new provisions to further restrict the ability of domestic abusers to acquire guns. 

This list does not mean change is easy or inevitable. It means it is possible. And reminding ourselves that change is possible is the wall that can keep cynicism away. 

Joshua Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Week of October 13, 2017

How Will I Dance During Darkness?

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

As a husband and father living in Las Vegas, I have been shaken to the core by the act of pure evil that transpired last week in our city.  

It is a very painful and dark time. The mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded close to 500 has left all of us stunned as we try to regain our senses in the aftermath of this inhumane act. We are mourning as a community and as a nation.

Yet, as the pain sinks deeper into our consciousness and our minds wander in dismay, we in the Las Vegas Jewish community are preparing to celebrate the happiest day on the Jewish calendar, Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the annual completion of the Torah reading cycle with joyful dancing.

How can we possibly dance and celebrate while our hospitals still are filled with wounded and our dead are not yet buried? What do I as a community leader say to the countless people from throughout the world who are turning to us for guidance?

Our history as a people is filled with persecution and suffering. Yet, we have documented stories of Jews defiantly celebrating Simchat Torah even within the walls of concentration camps. How did they do it? What was their secret?

The essence of Torah is selflessness. Its clarion call is for us to “Love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” It inspires us to believe in the essential good within each person.

So, let me share with you how I will dance this Simchat Torah.

As I hold on to the Torah, with my tightest embrace, I will close my eyes and reflect upon the many heroes, citizens and law enforcement officers who ran into the line of fire to save the lives of others. I will reflect upon the hundreds of people I saw waiting in line for eight hours to donate blood in order to help strangers.  

I will remember how I saw a wounded veteran wheeling herself around the long lines, handing out cold drinks and food to those waiting to give blood. I will honor the friends I have in this community — the doctors, police officers and volunteers who are working around the clock devoting themselves to helping others.

As I do this, my tears of pain will transform into joy because we know that the power of good within the many is infinitely greater than the evil within the few.

Although the pain and darkness may never go away, the light and joy it has revealed will shine forever. 

Rabbi Schneur Hayes is a Chabad emissary and educator in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Embraces Torah in Time of Tragedy

An interfaith vigil in response to the Las Vegas shooting was held at Guardian Angel Cathedral nearby the Las Vegas strip.

Three days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Jewish community there headed into Sukkot, and the words recited at evening prayers, Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace — never seemed more apt.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of 600 families at Congregation Ner Tamid in nearby Henderson, Nev., held a small vigil on Oct. 2 alongside the community’s sukkah that was still under construction.

“I wanted to have an outdoor vigil,” Akselrad told the Journal, “because when you looked up, you could see the stars and see how small we are, and there has to be something greater we can draw upon and give us courage.”

His Reform synagogue also plans to host a fundraising concert called “Vegas Strong in Song” on Oct. 15 for the victims of the attack, in which 58 people died and more than 500 were injured. The event will include Jewish performers from around the country.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, which holds services in Las Vegas and has about 100 families as members, said that during Sukkot services “we acknowledged that life is certainly as fragile as a sukkah. In lieu of any kind of a sermon I might have given, I acknowledged that sometimes words are inadequate and gave my congregation the opportunity to break out in small groups and simply share what they had been going through since the massacre.”

Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said he was proud of the community and its response to the shooting.

“Whether it’s been collecting food and water for people, donating blood, or the upcoming concert, our community has been nothing short of miraculous and has responded to those in need,” he said.

Mintz personally called every family in her congregation after the attack.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for this to happen, but it happened instantaneously,” she said. “The interfaith community, especially, became galvanized, and rallies and vigils sprung up all over the city.”

Among them was the interfaith vigil at Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2, which Akselrad helped organize. “I spoke at so many vigils last week,” he said, but noted that his mantra at each of them was the same: “I choose to love love more than I want to hate hate.”

He said he spoke of what it was important to remember and what should be forgotten: “I don’t want to remember the name of the [shooter]. I want to remember the acts of courage and faith and of love. And the emphasis will be not that this was the worst tragedy, but that there were heroes who came forward in a time [they were] needed most.”

Beyond dealing with the physical needs of the victims, it became a priority in the Jewish community to make sure area children felt safe. P’nai Tikvah member Arlyn Katz said that in addition to the phone call from Mintz — who has two adult children and one who is 10 — she received an email on how to talk to her children.

“I was really grateful for that,” she said.

Mintz’s youngest child, Kayla, had to deal with a particularly close connection to the tragedy: The secretary of the dance academy she regularly attended was shot twice in the chest and hospitalized in critical condition as of Oct. 8. The secretary’s 13-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.

“When I woke up to get ready for school, I was really scared. That was a hard morning,” Kayla told the Journal.

While local public schools were closed the day after the shooting for security reasons, the private Jewish day school Kayla attends held classes as a result of the security already in place there. However, the school’s social worker came and spoke to the children, and the first hour of classes was canceled.

“It was a really heartfelt hour,” Kayla said. “It was emotional, but they kept asking us how we were and tried to calm us down.”

During Sukkot, Akselrad said he spent time doing a “trust walk” with the 15- and 16-year-old youths at Ner Tamid. The teens wrote prayers, wishes and poems and hung them in the sukkah. “They talked about their hope for healing and no more gun violence,” Akselrad said.

Yonina Kronfeld Schnee, a P’nai Tikvah member and special education teacher who lived in Israel for more than a decade, said the community came together following the shooting spree.

“I always felt safer in Israel than anywhere else because Israel is more prepared for things like this,” she said.

Journalist Chris Sieroty had attended Yom Kippur services at Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in Las Vegas, and was staying at the Mirage on the Strip for a conference when he heard sirens on Oct. 1. Initially, he thought nothing of it. 

“It’s Vegas,” he said. “If you’ve lived here long enough, you always hear sirens on the Strip.” 

But then his phone started buzzing. It was his niece who lives in Israel and is in the army calling to see if he was safe.

“I thought, ‘What’s she doing calling so late?’ so I didn’t pick it up,” he said. “But then I looked out the window and saw all the police, and the Strip was empty.”

He later realized that was because everyone had run into the casinos. Sieroty said he tried to get downstairs to see what was happening but the Mirage wasn’t letting people move about due to the concern that there might be another active shooter in the area.

More than a week after the shooting, the community now is focusing on how to move forward.

“The shooting affected everybody, and I suspect that the shock and the grief that initially fell over the city will give way to a plethora of other emotions, including anger and hopefully action,” Mintz said. “The prayers that sprung up will hopefully become what Abraham Joshua Heschel said: We will pray with our feet.”

Mintz said she hopes that will translate into “some sort of change that includes common-sense regulations for both firearms and for mental health.”

Akselrad echoed Mintz’s sentiments, adding, “We have to get involved in whatever we can do to help stop this horrific violence that guns cause.”

Polikoff said the Federation is thinking about “the long game.”

“We’re working with the Israeli Trauma Coalition and hoping to bring some of the Israeli expertise out here to help people deal with the trauma, the mental trauma,” he said. “The physical trauma will heal, but those first responders and those who were there that night are going to need help in the future, whether they know it now or not.” 

Faith in the Ruins

A sukkah in Herzliya, Israel. Photo by Ron Almog

In the middle of a Sukkot dinner last week, a guest’s wandering dog got a little lost.

When my host, Elon Gold, squeezed through a sukkah side exit to retrieve the dog from a narrow alley, the whole structure quivered around us.

“Elon, the sukkah’s gonna collapse!” his wife, Sacha, cried, urging him to be more gentle.

I looked up as the Moroccan lamps dangled over the couscous and a prime collection of single-malt scotch. It’ll be a shame if those bottles are shattered, I thought.

Fortunately, the disturbance this caused was very minor. But the metaphor was big, echoing the core message of Sukkot: What shelters us is fragile. How easily things can fall apart.

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy.

This isn’t a revelation for Jews. Sukkahs are supposed to be delicate, temporary dwellings, recalling the protective “cloud of glory” that God provided the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt as well as the booths they build for shelter. We build these booths to withstand a normal wind, but not a strong one. Only God is permanent, we’re told; our buildings and our bodies are ephemeral. 

I did not need reminding of this three days after a Las Vegas shooting massacre in which 58 people were murdered and more than 500 injured. I didn’t need reminding after Texans, Puerto Ricans and Barbudans saw their entire lives upended, their permanent homes decimated by the wrath of a storm. It’s no secret how vulnerable humans are to the forces of nature and the evils of our own darkest impulses — not to mention our terrible and chronic complacency in the face of horror.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that with every additional gun massacre we become less stunned, less shattered than we were from the previous massacre. The tragedy is no longer the tragedy; the tragedy is how inured we’ve become to “a culture of death” that grips us tighter with each new violent event. 

It’s ironic that this is supposed to be a season of joy — our z’man simchateinu — a celebration of earthly bounty and heavenly blessing at a time so many are being inundated with pain, trauma and tragedy. For God’s sake, why do so many Americans buy so many guns?

“I think a lot of Americans have guns because they’re fearful,” Noonan wrote. “They fear a coming chaos. … They think it’s all collapsing — our society, our culture, the baseline competence of our leadership class.”

For some of us, everything seems fragile while others appear well protected. But we survivors of history know that it could have been any of us in that concert crowd, and that all God’s creatures live in the path of a potential destructive natural event, whether by flood, fire or earthquake.

Do we really need a reminder of impermanence, or do we need an assurance of God’s presence? Where are you, Permanent God? How can we reach you?

Two years ago, I wrote a column declaring Sukkot “the most romantic of Jewish holidays.” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, leader of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, told me, “Sukkot is all about pleasure.”

After the intensity of Yom Kippur, repenting the ways we’ve failed our creator, king and judge, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God — it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

But this year, it’s the honeymoon from hell.

Days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, I was on the treadmill watching a news report of a woman standing in floodwater up to her knees, with her destroyed home behind her, crying, “God is great! Oh my God, y’all. God is great!” She was sobbing, wailing, hysterical, but she kept repeating: “God is great!”

I thought, is she nuts?

In times like these, when life feels more tragic than romantic, we all have a choice: We can turn toward God, hang out like lovers in the Sukkah, or we can turn away. 

A rabbinic interpretation holds that when we are told to “blot out the memory” of Amalek, an archetypal villain of the Bible, what we’re really blotting out is doubt. The curse Amalek brings is confusion and despair.

But that is part of faith, too. Like the guest’s wandering dog, we get a little lost sometimes. Our shelter may collapse. But God is always there, trying to find us.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

The Truth That Blinds

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Waking up to the news of the Las Vegas shooting, I saw headlines touting “the five things to know about the shooter.” As if that was all there was to know. And there I was, along with everyone else, gorging myself on quick sound bites of information that gave me the illusion that I knew the story.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

I’m not saying facts aren’t important. I love facts and data. I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with data of all kinds — historical, political, personal. But the more data I collect, the more I am convinced that I understand something — that I have conquered it. And then there’s nothing left to say about it.

Yes, facts are a necessary framework. But they can also obscure our vision.

The rabbis and sages knew this as they compiled the midrashim. They worked to reveal not the facts of the Torah but its silences and omissions — the places where story breaks down. Midrash brings those silences to the forefront.

Consider Genesis 22: God says to Isaac, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac … and offer him up there.” Abraham says nothing in response to this horrifying request to murder his son. Those who know a bit about Abraham know this is out of character. He argues with God consistently; he is not afraid to push back. But here, Abraham is silent.

Rashi responds to this challenging moment. Perhaps when God asked Abraham to take his son, Abraham said, “But I have two sons,” to which God said, “Your only one.” Abraham’s clever response may have been to suggest that each son (Isaac and Ishmael) is the only son of his mother, to which God may have said, the one “whom you love,” with Abraham insisting, “But, God, I love them both,” with God finally confirming that Isaac is the one.

Rashi reads Abraham’s silence midrashically. He’s less concerned with the facts of the story than with what is absent. He suggests that the silences must not be ignored, and that there is more than one story residing within them. They are opportunities for meaningful dialogue.

Rashi is not resolving the silence of Abraham; nor is he answering the question of why Abraham took Isaac up the mountain without pushing back. Rather, Rashi is presenting one possibility, pointing us toward what is missing in the text rather than what appears readily. Focus on what you don’t see, he suggests. He is moving us to dialogue. A midrashic response is never a final answer or revelation of fact. Each response implies the existence of another. It’s what keeps the text alive.

But what about the most compelling absences of our day — the ones brought about by violence and suffering? What about recent tragedies?

After catastrophes, we struggle with unanswerable questions. We do so with fervor and intensity, but the impulse quickly becomes negative as we impose story and speculation onto absence.

My inclination, upon hearing about Las Vegas, was to scan the available data and categorize it. It’s a convenient practice, but also dangerous: Once we do this, we stop listening and talking. After a mass shooting, we rush to identify a perpetrator’s gender, ethnicity, religion, mental health — perhaps at the expense of things less obvious. We lose story when we do this, and losing story means losing our way forward, toward a time when such events are no more.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says the character Jakob in Anne Michaels’ novel “Fugitive Pieces.” “My deepest story must be told by a blind man.”

It’s a line from a book to which I return continually. Jakob, years after witnessing the extermination of his family, is writing his memoirs. But he finds that it is precisely what he saw that is most impossible to articulate.

He has no words. He knows nothing — although he saw everything — and he won’t pretend that he does. He acknowledges, instead, the dangers of claiming to know the complete story.

In a world where we imagine we are blind to nothing given the pervasiveness of visual images, we privilege quick data over silent reflection and humility. We strive desperately to put together the pieces of each puzzle, leaving no gaps. We recoil from the idea of blindness.

Until we can acknowledge what we don’t know, we will be blinded by what we do know. 

MONICA OSBORNE is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.

When the Torah Opens Our Hearts

A woman makes a sign at a vigil on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

To welcome new families to our religious school, we bring the Torah to their homes, parading through the rooms. A blessing of nourishment in the kitchen. Communication in the family room. Comfort and affection in the bedroom. We open the Torah on the dining table and show children the words they will chant when they are 13, when they’ve barely left childhood and hardly know who they are.

It may seem strange to take that which is so sacred out of its pristine sanctuary and bring it to a world of domestic untidiness. However, Torah goes there on its own. This book we extol on Simchat Torah with dancing and singing has something to say to soldiers about packing a spade with which to bury their excrement during war (Deuteronomy 23:13). It concerns itself with menstruation, skin ulcers and fallen sheaves. It speaks of blood, sex and death. It doesn’t shy from humanity’s appetites and lusts; in fact, Torah assures humankind that in spite of the “sin that crouches at your door” (Genesis 4:7), “you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

When I was in rabbinical school, studying Torah night and day, I suddenly became frightened. What if this wasn’t meant for me? One Thursday, I was supposed to lift the Torah. I hesitated. How many Jews believe a woman shouldn’t carry the Torah? What if they were right? I loved Torah and I feared God. I wept to a male Conservative rabbi. “I don’t want to touch something I’m not supposed to,” I said. “I want to be a good Jew. But I’m impure.”

He took no pity on me. He said sternly, “If you think you have the power to contaminate the Torah, then you are incredibly arrogant.”

And with that, I was permitted. The Torah, while about our flaws, is far and away above our flaws.

With Simchat Torah, we complete an ancient Jewish recovery program. The program began with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of our creation, for in order to improve ourselves, we first need to decide we are worth the effort. Then we move through the Ten Days of Repentance, making amends to those we have wronged, to reach Yom Kippur, a spiritual summit from which we take stock of our experiences and chart our next steps.

Then we build a sukkah, hammering together a loose, temporary construction. Yom Kippur is dedicated to the imperfections of character, and Sukkot to the imperfections of body. We move from an exalted dream of the possible to the hard and often futile work of realizing the dream. Sukkot teaches that everything is vulnerable to collapse. It is the festival of the wilderness, and despite the battles, rebellions, hunger and thirst, we are explicitly commanded to be joyful.

The “program” culminates in Simchat Torah, the holiday upon which we celebrate reaching the final chapter of Torah, only to reroll the scroll right back to the beginning. The story ends before we arrive, just before the Israelites cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

So, what are we celebrating? The opportunity to start again? But why celebrate going back to the beginning when we haven’t even completed the journey?

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. The destination of our lives is uncertain. We set goals, trying to anticipate storms, when in fact, all we do know is that none of us gets out of here alive.

The Hebrew word for ark, aron, means “cabinet” and “casket.” On the desert journey, one aron carried the covenant and the shattered fragments of the first tablets. A second aron carried the remains of Joseph. Shards and bones.

At the beginning of our Kol Nidre service at Temple Isaiah, when we open the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, it is empty. A hollow, dark rectangle. A grave. The Torah scrolls are carried in silent procession from the back. The heart is restored to its chest. At the closing of Yom Kippur, during Neilah, we pass our Torah scrolls throughout the entire congregation, an usher at the end of each aisle helps, and a thousand people hold a Torah against their hearts.

The day after we held the Torah so tight this year, the deadliest shooting massacre in modern U.S. history was perpetrated in Las Vegas, with 58 people dead and nearly 500 injured. 

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. 

How is it possible to dance with the Torah now? To observe z’man simchateinu, a “time of our joy”? How do we hold tightly to a holy scroll at a moment of such darkness?

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. Torah champions a radical idea: One God. A universal moral code of conduct. The opening words, “In the beginning,” are already a polemic against history being cyclical and fate being predetermined. Genesis unfolds into Exodus, the inspiration behind nearly every revolution against bondage and injustice.   

Simchat Torah is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Torah asks (Genesis 18:25). Torah even names its protagonist Yisrael, “One who wrestles with God and with man and prevails” (Genesis 32:29).

In the short story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God,” Zvi Kolitz writes: “I love [God]. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life — and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!” In times of darkness, when we question and even rail against God the most, we still hold fast to our Torah.

We are the inheritors of our biblical ancestors’ audacious optimism when they packed timbrels as they rushed out of Egypt, with the faith that, no matter how long the journey, good will triumph and we will sing and dance.

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

There is a Chasidic story of a boy who asks his father for an apple but is refused. The boy quickly recites the blessing over eating fruit. Not wanting his son to be guilty of reciting a blessing in vain, the father gives him the apple. Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet used this story to teach that we celebrate with joy despite a world of darkness, because by putting blessing into the world, we necessitate a good response. He taught the Chasidic maxim: “Simchah breaks through barriers.” He wrote, “We can draw an analogy between this maxim and the fact that Mashiach, too, is referred to as ‘The one who breaks through’ (Micah 2:13). This comes to teach us that simchah, joyfulness, has the power to break through the walls … and hasten the coming of Mashiach!”

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

My favorite Simchat Torah was in the mountain city of Safed, the people spilling out onto the crooked streets singing and stamping, the Torah sailing above as they marched past crumbly buildings pocked with bullet holes. Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel live!

We set our goals on Yom Kippur. But try as we might, there is no guarantee those goals will be achieved in our lifetimes. We don’t know who will live and who will die. On Simchat Torah, we remember that our lives, however fleeting they may be, are bound up in an eternal story. We make peace with the fact that the journey may never be completed, our dreams may not all come true, and still rejoice that we are links in a chain of tradition that affirms life and hope.

When Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion was burned at the stake, he was wrapped in the blessed Torah scroll with wet wool over his heart to prolong his death. His disciples cried out to him, “Master, what do you see?” He answered, “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames, but the letters soar upward!”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said, “I do not ask You to tell me why I suffer, but only whether I suffer for Your sake.”

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the power to turn darkness into light by transforming chaos into meaning.

The Israelites had to have a lot of courage to leave Egypt, but they weren’t yet free. They were lost. The difference between being free and being lost is direction. On Shavuot, we celebrate the receiving of our set of directions. On Simchat Torah we celebrate our continuing interpretation of this treasure map, and our faith that there is indeed a way for this impoverished world to reach the X that marks redemption. 

As in many congregations, we will open one of our scrolls on Simchat Torah so that the parchment is entirely revealed. The Torah we will open is one that traveled with me to London, wrapped in a baby blanket.

That Torah was one of the 1,564 Czech scrolls gathered by the Central Jewish Museum in Prague during the Holocaust. Under Nazi supervision, every scroll was labelled in Czech and German, giving the name of the community and congregation from which it came. Ours was one of the 216 scrolls that had lost their tags. It is known as an Orphan Scroll. Twenty years after the war, the scrolls were discovered and brought to Westminster Synagogue, from where many were distributed to temples all over the world. I was taking the Torah to London for a reunion of the scrolls, 50 years after their rescue.

In the TSA security line at the airport, two Charedi men kept looking back at me, whispering to each other. Finally, one man asked, “Are you holding a Torah?” I nodded. His eyes widened. Then he declared, “You must go before us in line,” and he cleared a path. “The Torah should always go first!”

At the museum at Westminster Synagogue, I saw the piles of scrolls that were too damaged to be lent out. Some by fire, some by water. Some had their skin nibbled by rodents. Some were rotten or torn, grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.

Our Orphan Torah is not as beautiful as others I saw, with their flourishes and ink as bright as patent leather. Ours is all scratches and stains, faded chunky letters, ungraceful lines, age spots, wrinkles and puckers. It is considered nonkosher.

What does our Orphan Scroll tell us, that heralds from not one, but all destroyed congregations? What does it say about racism, fear and hate? About survival and hope?

It says: All of humanity is descended from one couple. Every person is made b’Tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. Here is the Sabbath, the world’s greatest religious gift. Here are the Ten Commandments, an ethical blueprint of civilization. Love your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger in your midst. Proclaim liberty throughout the land. I turn a slave people into a nation of priests. I am the voice of Sinai. I am the DNA of history. I am the hard consonants brought to life by the soft vowels of your breath. I am the Tree of Life. I am witness to the worst and best humanity has to offer. When there are no more human witnesses, I will remain, my letters soaring into the sky.

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. … It is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God.

The first letter of the Torah is the beit of bereshit and the last letter is the lamed of Yisrael, and together lamed-beit spells lev, which means heart. The whole covenant is framed with love. A love letter addressed to a world aching with pain and sorrow, hand-delivered and sealed with a kiss.

At Simchat Torah, we dance to open our hearts. So let’s dance. 

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles is senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah and author of the children’s book “The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah” (Apples & Honey Press, 2017).

Good Gun Policy Starts With Reality

A selection of AK and AR rifles are seen for sale at the Pony Express Firearms shop in Parker, Colorado December 7, 2015. Many Americans are stocking up on weapons after the country's worst mass shooting in three years. Gun retailers are reporting surging sales, with customers saying they want to keep handguns and rifles at hand for self-defense in the event of another attack. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, good-hearted people immediately begin looking for ways to prevent the next act of evil. That’s natural, and it’s worthwhile. What isn’t worthwhile is substituting emotional manipulation for evidence-based policymaking. And unfortunately, after the Las Vegas massacre, that’s precisely what’s been happening.

We’ve heard from Democratic politicians that those who don’t immediately leap to “do something” — anything, presumably — about guns are somehow cold-hearted. Jimmy Kimmel went so far as to suggest that those who don’t support his gun control agenda have blood on their hands.

But here’s the problem: Not a single gun law short of full-scale gun confiscation would have prevented Las Vegas or any of the other mass shootings we’ve seen. Furthermore, there is no correlation between states with high rates of gun ownership and states with high rates of gun homicide.

So, how do we make good gun policy?

Let’s begin with the facts: You have an individual Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Any supposition that your rights to self-defense are relegated to your membership in a “well-regulated militia” are legally groundless and historically ignorant. That’s why the Supreme Court held in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that “the operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

There’s a reason for the Founding Fathers’ logic here — and that reasoning is still relevant .

First, bad people are capable of getting arms in the U.S. That is a simple fact. According to epidemiologist Anthony Fabio of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Health, the vast majority of perpetrators in crimes involving guns in Pittsburgh — nearly 80 percent — obtained their guns illegally. And relying on the police to defend you is often impossible — the police can only respond to crimes, they can’t forestall them. That means that your last line of self-defense is your ability to use a weapon. Gun rights advocates state that guns are used millions of times a year to stop a crime — but even the Bureau of Justice Statistics says that guns are used in this way well over 67,000 times per year.

Second, the Founders feared the possibility of tyranny, and they supported state militias and individual gun ownership to prevent such tyrannies from arising. It makes perfect sense that the first gun control laws promulgated in the United States were pushed by the Ku Klux Klan, which was seeking to prevent Black gun ownership after the Civil War. As UCLA constitutional scholar Adam Winkler has written, “It was a constant pressure among white racists to keep guns out of the hands of African-Americans, because they would rise up and revolt. … The KKK began as a gun control organization.” There also is a reason that when it attained power, Hitler’s regime sought to remove guns from Jews. It’s somewhat ironic to hear those who think President Donald Trump is an incipient fascist insist they trust Trump to seize millions of firearms from law-abiding Americans.

With all of that said, there are limitations on the Second Amendment: Your right to keep and bear arms does not apply to nuclear weapons, for example. In determining the best policies, we must balance the need and right to firearms with public policy concerns, including the risk that a machine gun will be used in public.  That’s why federal machine gun sale has been illegal since 1986.

Not a single gun law short of full-scale gun confiscation would have prevented Las Vegas or any of the other mass shootings we’ve seen. 

So, what do we do about situations like Las Vegas? We begin with the premise that we’re all brothers and sisters who want to prevent evil acts. Then we move on to the evidence.

It’s well worth discussing the banning of “bump stocks” (devices added to semi-automatic rifles that allow them to simulate automatic rates of fire), for example. We also should look at ways of enforcing federal laws banning the sale of guns to the mentally ill, without violating the due process rights of those suspected of mental illness. But to suggest banning all guns would be unwise as well as immoral: How exactly do gun control proponents suggest disarming 100 million Americans of 300 million guns, when we’ve been told that we can’t even identify 11 million illegal immigrants? Such an effort would end in bloodshed, even if it were desirable — which, of course, it isn’t, since criminals don’t tend to pay much attention to laws. 

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Dancing With Darkness

FILE PHOTO: Jason Aldean performs at the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

Country music star Jason Aldean, performing at the outdoor Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on the night of Oct. 1, was just beginning a new song when bullets from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel began raining down on thousands of unsuspecting concertgoers.

After the killer was done, 58 people perished and nearly 500 were injured.

We still don’t know what motivated Stephen Paddock to commit this monstrous act, but we do know what enabled him to do it: Living in a free and open society.

Paddock was free to book two adjoining hotel rooms and bring along an arsenal of high-powered guns and rifles. The hotel’s personnel were not free to check his luggage, lest they violate his rights. Had a security official said to him, “Excuse me, sir, this luggage is unusually heavy, we have to check it,” he could have sued the hotel.

Paddock knew that America had given him a safe space to carry out his destruction. He knew he was living in a country where the right to be left alone is sacred. He had complete confidence that if he acted “normally,” he would be free to crack open his hotel window and start shooting.

We soon realized that the two stories were connected by a difficult question: How do we rejoice when darkness strikes? We are not robots. When tragedies consume our consciousness, how can we be expected to dance and celebrate? How does the Jewish tradition handle such dilemmas?

Paddock used his freedom to destroy the same freedom in others. Through the long lenses of his weapons, he must have seen the faces and bodies of those “others” exercising their freedom to be left alone, their freedom to enjoy a concert under the stars. With each pull of the trigger, he killed the freedom of movement that he himself cherished and gorged on.

“Some days it’s tough just gettin’ up” were the words Jason Aldean was singing when Paddock’s gunfire intruded. He kept singing for a bit (“Throwin’ on these boots and makin’ that climb / Some days I’d rather be a no-show lay-low ‘fore I go outta my mind”) before quickly running backstage.

Journalists can’t run backstage when mayhem happens. We do the opposite — we run toward the mayhem. We put our emotions aside and hunt for facts. To help our readers make sense of the senseless, we look for smart analyses and insightful commentary. We did all of that in preparing for this issue.

But we had a conflict: We had planned a beautiful cover story for this issue on the joyful holiday of Simchat Torah. What should we do with it? Our first instinct was to move it inside the paper and put the Vegas tragedy on the cover, as we usually do when disasters strike. In this case, however, I decided to call the writer of the Simchat Torah story, Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles, and discuss the issue with her.

We soon realized that the two stories were connected by a difficult question: How do we rejoice when darkness strikes? We are not robots. When tragedies consume our consciousness, how can we be expected to dance and celebrate? How does the Jewish tradition handle such dilemmas?

My friend Zoë seized the moment and decided to rework her piece. Hence the cover: “How do we rejoice at Simchat Torah during times of darkness?” It’s worth a read.

Three of our columnists — Danielle Berrin, Marty Kaplan and Monica Osborne — also weigh in on the difficult questions that have come out of Vegas. A Chabad rabbi living in Las Vegas writes about how he will dance at Simchat Torah despite the darkness. Reporter Kelly Hartog details how the local Jewish community in Vegas is responding. Rabbi Naomi Levy offers a special prayer for the victims. And our millennial poet, Hannah Arin, who was raised in Las Vegas, writes about a “desert that speaks.”

On our debate page, we have two views on the Second Amendment, one by our columnist Ben Shapiro and the other by Philadelphia attorney and gun-control activist Karen Kaskey.

Meanwhile, Karen Lehrman Bloch weighs in on the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal that has provided its own source of darkness, while new columnist Dr. Jennifer Yashari writes about the challenges of living with a degenerative muscular disease that strikes mostly Persian Jews.

As consumed as we are by one event, the weekly rhythm of our stories continues. Senior Writer Eitan Arom reports on the plight of the Yazidis, which the community learned more about during Yom Kippur services, while Kelly Hartog writes about a newsstand owner in Brentwood who is taking a stand against Whole Foods.

So yes, darkness hits us time and time again, but life and Torah continue…. In our free society, maybe that is the best message we can deliver to the forces of darkness: no matter what comes, we ain’t going nowhere.

From Israel, our political editor Shmuel Rosner weighs in on the Iran deal, while Debra Kamin profiles a biker, former drug addict and dog rescuer in “Humans of Israel.” You’ll find many more stories throughout the paper, including a book review on “The Salome Ensemble” and Naomi Pfefferman’s story on a new film about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

To coincide with the new beginning of the reading of the Torah, we are launching this week a new feature called “Table for Five,” in which five different voices comment on a verse from the weekly Torah portion. In this issue, we have American Jewish University’s Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Sephardic Rabbi Marc Angel, Jerusalem scholar Tova Hartman, Venice Rabbi Lori Shapiro and Hancock Park Chassidic Rabbi Reuven Wolfe weighing in on a seminal episode from the Garden of Eden.

So yes, darkness hits us time and time again, but life and Torah continue. When Jason Aldean was interrupted by the guns of evil, he was about to sing, “But when she says baby / Oh, no matter what comes ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

In our free society, maybe that is the best message we can deliver to the forces of darkness: No matter what comes, we ain’t going nowhere.

The Quest to Find the Vegas Killer’s Motive

A makeshift memorial is seen next to the site of the Route 91 music festival mass shooting outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Oct. 3. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Means, motive, opportunity.

For detectives, nailing down those is the perp trifecta.

In Las Vegas, the forensic postmortem on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history stands at two out of three. Means? Check. Opportunity? Check. But unless new evidence turns up, the killer’s motive is a black box.

A missing motive is worse than frustrating. It disrupts the moral order.
When humans act, in Coleridge’s phrase, with “motiveless malignity,” our wisdom traditions, the stories we typically soothe ourselves with, are disturbingly ineffectual. Not knowing why the cipher on the 32nd floor did what he did, not knowing why God did what God did, upends our beliefs about luck, meaning, evil, justice — the stuff of life and death.

“What the detective story is about,” said P.D. James, the queen of crime fiction, “is not murder but the restoration of order.”

Las Vegas was, devastatingly, not fiction, but it was and is a detective story. It came to us labeled as news, but we experienced it as narrative. It was visual, visceral, violent and shamefully riveting. It also illustrates James’ aphorism: The murderer may be dead, but absent a motive, we’re stuck in a random cosmos, where horrors like this can happen to anyone.

Why did he do it?

Was he a psychopath, driven by demons, severed from reality? No one who knew him saw it coming. If he could snap like that, who’s next?

Was it for fame? Revenge? Was he abused? Or was it political? Did he hate us for our freedom? He left no note, no manifesto, no trail of terror — no reason, until his blaze of barbarity, for us to call him Other instead of Brother.

Or did he do it, like a madman out of Dostoevsky, to demonstrate that God is dead?

“I was agnostic going into that concert,” Taylor Benge, 21, his and his sister’s clothes covered in other people’s blood, told CNN, “and I’m a firm believer in God now, ’cause there’s no way that all of that happened, and that I made it, and I was blessed enough to still be here alive talking to you today.”

The terror of that night is unimaginable. Like all Americans, I mourn its victims, and its survivors’ courage and generosity take my breath away. Yet — with respect —  I wrestle with the idea of a God who blessed Taylor Benge enough, but who also made the monster of the Mandalay Bay. If the Benges’ survival is attributable to God’s benevolence, could the 58 killed, the more than 500 injured and the shooter who rained grief and death on them be chalked up to God’s negligence, perversity or impotence?

Any restoration of order is tentative, because our human hands have enough free will to fail us. But to inhabit a world where arbitrary carnage is inevitable: that’s a lousy story to have to tell our tribe about the nature of existence.

It limits God’s love. It imagines that God has abandoned us. It prompts some of us to source evil to an origin beyond God’s reach, to a Satan or an evil eye. It moves others to conflate mysticism with wishful thinking. It’s what led Gloucester, in “King Lear,” to drag our deities down to earth: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Taylor Benge experienced his survival as God’s grace. To interpret it, instead, as luck: that’s living life on the volcano’s edge. I’ve been there. It’s intolerable.

On the cover of The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 6, there appeared a three-column image of a page from the 1970 Francis Polytechnic High School yearbook, above the headline, “The Life of a Mass Shooter.” To protect student privacy, all pictures but one were pixelated. The exception was a photo of the murderer as a junior. Pleasant face, healthy head of hair. Nice kid.

In hindsight, uncanny and haunting. But no warning — no horns. The Journal’s reporters found nothing in his life that fits a mass killer’s profile. His final act might as well have fallen from the sky.

The mass murder case is closed. The murderer of order, though, remains at large. Our life stories now include his story. Like it or not, his motiveless malignity points a bullet at our dreams of an unconditionally lovable God.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Jewish Groups Step Up to Help in Wake of Las Vegas Shooting

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

The Oct. 1 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 people dead and 527 wounded, has triggered help from several Jewish groups, in particular the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.

“I don’t think there is any part of this community that is not feeling the impact of these events,” Federation President and CEO Todd Polikoff said hours after the attack. “We’re constantly looking at how we can help the whole community, Jewish and non-Jewish, and deal with what transpired.”

Those efforts have been multifaceted.

“Right now, it’s information-gathering. We’re trying to reach out to members of the community, various synagogues and anyone in our base to let us know that everyone is safe that they know of and if they’re not, what’s the situation,” Polikoff said.

He added that as of the morning after the shooting, he did not know if anyone in the Jewish community had been injured or killed, but there were 22,000 people at the concert, “and we know members of the Jewish community go to these festivals,” he said.

Rabbi Levi Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada said he had spent time with the family of one Jewish victim at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, where 14 patients had died as of Oct. 2. The outdoor Route 91 Harvest music festival began Sept. 29 and concluded on Oct. 1.

Harlig said he visited the hospital after hearing about a Jewish woman from Orange County whose husband had dropped her off at the concert, where she was shot in the neck.

“Thank God [her injury] does not seem to be life-threatening,” he told the Journal.

An estimated 70,000 Jews live in Nevada, with the majority residing in Las Vegas, according to Polikoff.

The Federation leader said the organization has been in contact with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“We’re trying to work with Metro as best as we can,” Polikoff said. “They have a hot-line for people who are looking for family members. We’re trying to drive people to the blood services in town because blood services are greatly needed and we’re trying to be a community partner the best we can.”

The authorities said the gunman, Stephen Paddock, fired his weapon from a room on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel, overlooking the concert, during the performance of headliner Jason Aldean. Paddock began firing at the crowd gathered at the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds at 10:08 p.m., authorities said.

The rapid gunfire sent concertgoers running, while others crouched on the ground and held one another.

As the shooting continued for several minutes, a SWAT team closed in on the shooter’s location. Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said Paddock committed suicide after SWAT officers pinned him down. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Law enforcement, however, said the shooter acted alone.

Polikoff said he was asleep when his Apple Watch buzzed at 1 a.m. with a news notification about the incident. He thought it was his watch alerting him to wake up, as it does every morning at 5 a.m. The news — that 20 people had been killed — stunned him. By the time he got in his car to drive to work, the number had risen to more than 50.

Various members of the Federation staff left the office to donate blood and found long lines, “100 people deep,” he said.

Noa Peri-Jensch, regional director of the Israeli American Council in Las Vegas, said her organization was encouraging people to assist those donating blood.

“The blood centers are packed with donors, so we have decided that instead of blood, we should assist those who are standing in lines to donate blood,” she said. “Members of the Israeli community went out in a big truck to hand out water and food to those in line at the blood centers.”

Anna Rubin, director of media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, which serves the entire region of the southwest United States, including Nevada, told the Journal on Oct. 2 that five Israelis were unaccounted for in the wake of the attack.

“We are monitoring the situation,” Rubin said, explaining that the consulate was notified by the missing individuals’ families. Additional information on the missing Israelis, whose parents are in Israel, was not immediately available. 

Julie Martinez, a mother of two girls, has lived in Las Vegas for eight years. The daughter of an Israeli mother and an American father, Martinez was supposed to go to the concert with a friend but changed her mind at the last minute. Her friend, however, attended.

“My friend went there with her 4-year-old daughter. She called me crying and in shock after she ran from the concert area to the Tropicana hotel,” Martinez said. “That’s how I found out what had happened. They stayed there for five hours until the police let them go back home. The streets were completely empty. No one was allowed to leave. Many people who attended the concert ran as well to the Tropicana. People gave them drinks and helped them out. Everybody was so helpful, she told me.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Jewish organizations, including the Union of Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Los Angeles social justice-oriented congregation IKAR, renewed a call for the enactment of tighter gun control laws.

“There is so much we don’t know yet about this shooting. What does seem clear is that the gunman used at least one fully automatic assault weapon among the 17 weapons, including rifles with scopes, that police found in his hotel room. These are weapons of war, easily accessible in America,” IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous said on Oct. 2 in a statement titled “Enough With Your Thoughts and Prayers. People are Dying.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt echoed Brous’ call for more gun control.

“We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun violence prevention measures,” Greenblatt said.

Polikoff, meanwhile, said at this early juncture, he did not want to focus on the politics of the situation.

“One thing I’m not listening to is anyone who wants to turn this into any sort of political commentary. I don’t think this is the time or place [to say], ‘This wouldn’t have happened if so-and-so were in office,’ ” he said. “We have to worry about the people who were hurt and the families who lost loved ones at this time. I will let everyone else discuss the politics of what they want to discuss. I will focus on people who need help.”

Harlig, the Chabad rabbi, said the shooting shook him up.

“You hear stories about New York, Florida, overseas, and all of a sudden this is our hometown, so it is frightening, but I think the holiday of our rejoicing is coming up, Sukkot, so we will have a double amount of strength to counter the darkness,” he said.   

Harlig expressed confidence that life in Las Vegas will soon — perhaps too quickly — return to normal.

“Unfortunately, people get caught up with the excitement and the glamour here and are quick to forget,” he said. “It might take a day or two, but I think it will go back to normal. Let’s wait for the dust to settle.” 

Additional reporting by Contributing Writer Ayala Or-El

Bumping Into Voices

Because this is my first issue as editor-in-chief, I’d like to give you a mini tour of what you’re about to see. One of the joys of being a journalist is that we’re always bumping into interesting voices, and this Sukkot issue reflects many of the voices and stories I bump into in the course of hanging out in our community.

The voice in this week’s cover story is that of my friend Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who shares his personal take on the unusual holiday of Sukkot. Daniel and I share a love for coffee and books. We’re both Sephardic Jews attached to our Sephardic customs but also fascinated by the diversity of the Jewish tradition. His story gives you an inkling of this diversity. And right after his Sukkot story, you’ll get a sneak peek at the magical sukkah of local philanthropists Dina and Fred Leeds, who take the mitzvah of welcoming guests quite seriously.

In anticipation of my new role, I’ve been on the lookout for fresh new voices. Last year, I hosted New York author Karen Lehrman Bloch at my house for Shabbat. Karen, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times and The New Republic, has the voice of the classic liberal who understands the value of meeting in the center, or, as she puts it in her debut column, in the “radical middle.”

Over a shakshuka breakfast at Pico Café, I asked my friend Salvador Litvak, the filmmaker who has built a large following as the “Accidental Talmudist,” if he’d want to contribute something “talmudic” for this issue. His piece, “War at the Book Club,” does just that — examining how we can disagree without animosity.

Kay Wilson is a writer, cartoonist and musician who lives in Jerusalem. We were introduced recently by a mutual friend. Several years ago, Kay survived a horrific stabbing attack at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I asked Kay if she felt comfortable enough to share thoughts that have come out of that horror. Her piece, “As I Lay Dying,” speaks to life’s deepest lessons.

I came across Alicia Jo Rabins on Facebook and was intrigued by her lyrical prose. Alicia is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. Her piece, “The Sukkah as Spiritual Medicine,” is a poetic meditation connecting the sukkah to the human body.

My friend Aomar Boum is a Muslim associate professor at UCLA who’s a regular guest at our Shabbat table. He’s an expert on the Jews of Morocco, where I was born. My mother’s cuisine reminds him of his mother’s cuisine. I asked Aomar if he’d write something explaining his fascination for studying Jews. “I’m an academic writer,” he replied. “Will that work for your readers?” I told him to write from the heart, and he did.

I met the head of Chabad of Puerto Rico, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, about 15 years ago on my way to a Caribbean cruise with my family. Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Maria tore into the island, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I tried reaching him several times. When I finally did (thank you, WhatsApp), we spoke about the disaster, but also about a little miracle: How Zarchi and his wife found a way to hold Rosh Hashanah services and serve holiday meals after hundreds of gallons of water had flooded their shul. Reporter Kelly Hartog has the story.

Another voice I bumped into on Facebook is that of Israeli-born Yamit Behar Wood, the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda. Yamit writes about food, but also about the cultures that surround food. Her first story is about her late Aunt Dora, her culinary mentor.

Right after Yom Kippur, we got the sad news of the passing of television personality Monty Hall. Monty was a friend of the Journal and of charitable organizations everywhere, as well as a storyteller extraordinaire. We pay tribute to this local hero in this issue.

On the day we went to press — as we were putting the finishing touches to the paper — we got news of the tragic massacre in Las Vegas. In addition to our last-minute coverage, we have a poem reflecting on the tragedy by Hannah Arin, a millennial writer who will be a regular contributor.

One of the looming political issues today is whether President Donald Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal as the Oct. 15 deadline approaches. Larry Greenfield, who served as executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior political scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corp., debate the merits of both sides.

Steven Spielberg opens his own heart in “Spielberg,” the first feature-length documentary of his life, premiering Oct. 7. Our contributing writer Gerri Miller shares a few interesting anecdotes from the film, including the fact that Spielberg’s parents’ divorce influenced “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

We also have book reviews about two great Jews this week. The Journal’s book editor,  Jonathan Kirsch, writes that “the late Shimon Peres calls to us from the grave” in his posthumously published memoir, “No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel.” Monica Osborne weighs in on William Kolbrener’s “The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition,” a complex take on a complex man.

From Israel, our senior political editor, Shmuel Rosner, shares his latest insights on what’s going on in Israel as part of his expanded “Rosner’s Domain” page. We’re also adding a column titled “Humans of Israel,” where American expat writer Debra Kamin will profile Israelis of all stripes. Her first piece is on winemaker-philosopher Yonatan Koren, who runs an organic winery in western Galilee.

Closer to home, contributing writer Rebbecca Spence writes about three Jewish women who are leading the way in the legal cannabis trade, while Roberto Loiderman writes about a new recording of “Tales From the Forgotten Kingdom,” a musical-theatrical show that celebrates Ladino culture.

Reporting on the holiest day of the year, Senior Writer Eitan Arom covers an emotional episode at Temple Israel of Hollywood that resulted from its senior rabbi’s discussion of politics at Kol Nidre.

On a lighter note, we’re adding little “spice boxes” throughout the paper with things such as humor and big questions to ponder for dinner conversation.

As I begin my new journey, one of my aims will be to look for voices that try to open minds rather than change them. I want to provoke thought, not anger; curiosity, not cynicism; fascination, not smugness.

I want to touch every member of our incredibly diverse community. I won’t always succeed. Some voices you will like more than others. Some voices will return, others won’t. It’s a journey we will take together.

What I can tell you is that everything I do will come from the deep love I have for this community — and for all the interesting voices and stories I keep bumping into that I can’t wait to share with you.

Chag sameach.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

5 short comments on the Las Vegas massacre: Thinking about the next concert

A candlelight vigil is pictured on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A day of mourning. A day of baffled mourning. You mourn the dead and pray for the wounded. You also begin mourning the next senseless act of terror, and the one after that. That is, because you know there is no end to this violence in sight, no identifiable explanation that can be dealt with and hence no identifiable remedy.


All the many politicians and pundits who try to explain the source of evil after such events can be divided into two main groups: those who point the finger at people’s behaviour and those who point the finger at government policies.

President Trump, in his speech yesterday, clearly positioned himself in the first group.

President Obama, in every speech he made after every attack during his term as president, positioned himself in the second group.

It would be unwise to describe this as a pragmatic debate about the benefits of gun control. This is a debate about the responsibility and rights of men vs. the responsibility and rights of governments.


Being an Israeli, I am all for gun control. Being a realistic observer, though, I wonder about the call to drain America’s gun swamp. This seems as doable as deporting America’s illegal immigrants. President Trump vowed at some point that all illegal immigrants will have to leave, and his critics were quick to explain that deportation of more than ten million illegal immigrants is not a viable policy. The same critics should be honest enough to acknowledge that collecting 300 million guns is also not a viable proposal.

In other words, even if there is a change of gun policy (which is not forthcoming), it will take many years for this change to have real impact.


My fellow Israelis, who watch Las Vegas from afar with horror and bewilderment, take note: constitutions are great — but they are also very stubborn. Getting rid of guns and of the lobby system is impossible, among other things, because both are guaranteed by constitutional arrangements. This does not necessarily mean that not having a constitution is preferable to having one. It does mean that every system has its flaws, and wishing for a constitution ought not to become a religion.


While you cannot get the guns out of the hands of Americans, this does not mean that you cannot do a better job protecting Americans. It is only a matter of priority and cost. And it is possible that at some point, if attacks become even more common and deadly, the guarding of crowds in public places will become a higher priority that justifies the cost.

What can America do? It can have a better system of preventing people with guns from getting into hotels. It can have a better system of securing concerts, amusement parks and public demonstrations by making sure the crowd is sheltered from shooting from afar. It can have a better system of securing perimeters and making them gun free.


When will this happen? When people hesitate to purchase concert tickets because of security concerns.


Were Las Vegas suicide pact couple Neo-Nazis?

Law enforcement officials are looking into whether a man and woman who killed two Las Vegas police officers and a third person before killing themselves Sunday had links to the white supremacy movement, according to a report on Monday.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, citing city law enforcement sources, said investigators discovered paraphernalia associated with white supremacists, including swastika symbols, but it was not clear where the items was found.

The newspaper’s report also said the shooters covered the officers’ bodies with something featuring the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag. The yellow flag, which contains an image of a coiled snake and the words “Don’t tread on me,” is associated with the conservative Tea Party political movement.

Representatives for the Las Vegas Police Department said they could not confirm the report. A morning news conference is planned later on Monday.

The armed man and woman shouted about a “revolution” before opening fire and killing the two uniformed patrol officers, Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were eating lunch in a CiCi’s pizza parlor, police said on Sunday.

One of the two officers managed to return gunfire before the suspects fled to an adjacent Wal-Mart, where they killed a bystander inside the front door, then exchanged gunfire with police who pursued them further into the store, Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie said.

Moments later, the female suspect shot her accomplice to death, then took her own life, Gillespie told reporters on Sunday.

Beck had worked in the police department since August 2001 and was married, with three children. Soldo had been on the force since April 2006 and was married, with a baby.