Home on the Range?

Jewish education is not a high-paying field, and teachers always value a supplemental income. But bonuses for teachers who carry guns is not the answer. The mere suggestion of it is absurd. Imagine a new and awful reality where Jewish day school and Hebrew school teachers double as police officers. This past week, I asked the future teachers I teach for their thoughts in the wake of the latest school shooting. Of course, they spoke first about the pain and the horror. But it was also clear that they did not sign on to a job in security. They were willing to make sacrifices for the profession but not necessarily the ultimate sacrifice simply because our country cannot protect them. Without a doubt, teachers carrying guns would change the existential reality of what teachers do and who they are to the children under their care. The thought of it in practice is surreal. Yet not more surreal than parents wailing outside a school building waiting to learn what happened inside a place they assumed was stewarding their children. Many children are afraid to go to school. Now many teachers are afraid to go as well.

Teachers are in classrooms to do what they trained to do: educate. We arm children with knowledge. We defend ourselves with curiosity, No. 2 pencils and marbleized composition books. More guns does not mean more safety; it means more guns and more opportunities for people to abuse them. Instead of doing what civilized countries around the world have done to end this problem, we have become Second-Amendment zealots, convincing ourselves that the right to carry is quintessentially American and quintessentially about freedom.

Education is quintessentially about freedom.

As I let my mind contemplate this new world, which does not feel brave but terrifying, I realized that ridiculous suggestions like this are here to throw us off, to distract us — and they do — from the real problem: the availability of assault weapons to 18-year-olds and the use of AR-15-style rifles. These were the guns used at the Texas church shooting and the Las Vegas concert last year and the Orlando nightclub in 2016, Sandy Hook Elementary School and now Parkland. These are for going to war, to be used, if they have to at all, by those properly trained. They should never be in the hands of a civilian, let alone one with a criminal record or a mental health problem that has been reported, sometimes several times.

We will not be distracted. We know what the real issues are. It’s not about arming teachers. It’s about getting the wrong guns out of the wrong hands. So, if you’re a rabbi, speak out. If you’re a teen, stand out. If you’re a parent, protest. Just because this has not happened inside a Jewish school does not mean it won’t. And it’s not about us. It’s about being human. We stand with every parent in every school to mourn with those whose lives are shattered. We are here to make sure teachers are properly protected so they can do the work of teaching and not security duty.

In these days of Purim, the Talmud tractate that discusses the holiday contains some advice pertinent to this fight: “If someone says, ‘I have worked hard, and I have not been successful,’ don’t believe him. If someone says, ‘I have not worked hard, and I have been successful,’ don’t believe him. If someone says, ‘I have worked hard, and I have been successful,’ believe him” [BT Megilla 6b]. Success is about working hard. This passage is not only about a great work ethic. It is also a statement about successful advocacy. We are not going to be successful in this fight without a lot of hard, strategic work. This will be a prolonged and painful fight, but it’s a critical fight about life. And that, too, is quintessentially Jewish.

Over the years, I’ve had one thought about teaching and gun-related violence. If I had more courage, I would give up teaching and devote my entire professional life to gun control. The lack of appropriate gun control is one of the most serious and life-threatening issues facing this country right now, and everything in my Jewish life is about the protection and sanctity of life. It’s the “chai” necklace that a student wears that means life. It’s the biblical verses that exhort the importance of all life and the holiness of each life. It’s rabbinic literature that affirms the right to life and all that gets put aside in Jewish law in order to ensure life. What’s the point of teaching any of this if our schools are not safe havens of knowledge? It’s time to bite the bullet and make this the Jewish issue of the moment.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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