He's a bit too humble to admit it. But he may become known as one of the great social justice rabbis of our time.
As his rabbinical intern, I have the unique fortune of meeting with him every Monday. During our hour together, he patiently answers all kinds of questions that bubble up in my mind. How do I balance the personal and professional? What does it mean for my prayer life when I feel like expressing anger rather than joy? How can I best support our team of lay community organizers?
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher often leans forward in his chair, eyes open wide with excitement. With big hand gestures and an unabashed smile, he answers not only the questions I pose, but also the ones that underlie them.
For months this school year, Rabbi Mosbacher would answer the questions I gave voice to. But there was one that lingered in my mind: Why was he so passionate about social justice issues and gun violence prevention in particular?
The issue of gun violence became all the more pressing for us in the wake of the Newtown killings in December. When 26 people, including 20 children, were needlessly massacred in an elementary school, it seemed evident that too many people had too many military-grade guns with too many bullets in each clip. Hunters need not have this kind of weaponry -- and if they think they do, they probably should pursue a sport at which they have greater aptitude.
I was passionate about the issue. It cried out as a social injustice demanding redress. It was an issue with clear goals and immediate needs that we could address by mobilizing community members in our house of worship, and partnering with members of others. But for Rabbi Mosbacher it was something more. This was an issue that occupied his thoughts day and night; an issue that meant the world to him.
At first I thought his deeper motivations might be related to his love of study. Maybe he was living out the mandate from Leviticus, "Do not stand idly while your neighbor's blood is shed." Perhaps he was acting on the fundamental Jewish value of pikuach nefesh -- to do whatever it takes to save a human life.
A few weeks passed, and we began convening urgent meetings of our community organizing team, meetings with fellow clergy in the area, and planning for a rally in our sanctuary at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. Only partway through one of my mentoring meetings did I learn the personal Torah that Rabbi Mosbacher had to teach.
Fourteen years before Newtown, 30 school shootings ago, before the release of "Bowling for Columbine," Rabbi Mosbacher had learned firsthand of the pain that gun violence can cause.
Fourteen years ago, Lester Mosbacher, his father, was gunned down at his place of work in Chicago.
As Rabbi Mosbacher explained, his father had always arrived at work promptly. As a sole proprietor, he was responsible for making everything work. But one day, not long after he arrived at work, an individual shot him with a handgun.
There was no major newsbreak to announce the killing. No one has been held accountable for the murder. There has been no clear resolution or closure for Rabbi Mosbacher's family. The gun-related death was of the far more common kind, which without public attention leaves an empty chair at the dinner table and a bereaved family. The pain was most private, even though the violent act was most brazen.
Hearing the story for the first time, I was taken aback and filled with sadness for my internship mentor. The pain evident on his face when he told the story of his father's death contrasted starkly with the wide smile and hopeful expressions that frequent his countenance.
How, I wondered, could Rabbi Mosbacher remain so vocal about gun violence as an issue and so focused on the needs of the community as a whole in spite of such a personal connection to the issue? His story cried out to me. His attention to the well-being of others cried out to me.
Impressed by Rabbi Mosbacher's focus on the public good, I also saw for the first time that gun violence prevention really meant the prevention of pain to be endured in private. Even as legislative battles about the issue raged across states and in Congress, families were coming home to empty dinner tables and homes now tragically quiet. Rabbi Mosbacher was still grieving. So many like him were still grieving.
Gun violence is personal. It can kill people. It can make people grieve. It can cause an enduring sense of loss. But it is not a loss that we need to endure alone or without a voice. As Rabbi Mosbacher modeled for me, it can rally and sustain our efforts, even when legislation is slowed and public attention diverted to other issues.
It is, as Rabbi Mosbacher has shown, what calls us to change our views and in turn change others'. It is some of the Torah he has to teach. Rather than focusing on himself, he has harnessed the pain of his loss so that others need not share in the kind of grief that his family has endured.
He's doing it for Lester. Others are organizing for the people they have lost. Still more are organizing for the pain they seek to avoid.
Please join Rabbi Mosbacher in action.
- Come rally on Sunday, April 14 in East Orange, N.J.: "Do Not Stand Idly By Action Against Gun Violence"
- Join in the Grounswell Movement's efforts to combat gun violence.
- Sign the ongoing petition against gun violence, focusing on New Jersey.