Our “Hineni” Moment: Moving Forward After Sandy Hook

Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Josh Horwitz delivered the following speech at Temple Rodef Shalom on December 14, 2018 — the sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting:


It was six years ago today. My plane from San Francisco lands at Dulles a little before 5:00. As we taxi to the gate, I turn on my cell phone. The first thing that tells me that something is very, very wrong is that I have over 20 voice messages. Then I hear the gasps, the sobs, the cries from my fellow passengers. The headlines begin to scroll on my phone: Dozens dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School; six and seven-year-old kids murdered in their classrooms by a gunman wielding an AR-15 assault weapon; parents desperately waiting to be reunited with their children; educators gunned down trying to protect their students. It was another Virginia Tech — only this time the victims were mostly little kids.

The weeks that followed were a blur. Our nation was in grief, shock, disbelief. As I met the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and other citizens of Newtown, Connecticut, it was clear that their world, their town, their families were forever altered. The 2012 holiday season was difficult for any caring citizen, but for the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers of the deceased, the loss and emptiness were pure agony. In my line of work, I encounter people that have endured unspeakable tragedy every day, but for those who have lost children, especially young children, somehow it is even worse.

President Obama got a glimpse of this anguish when he visited Newtown and met with the families of those killed. He emerged visibly shaken. Obama had just been elected to a second term barely a month before. It is hard to believe, but during his first term he barely talked about guns, even after numerous mass shootings during the early years of his presidency. But now freed from the confines of running for reelection and jolted to his core by the death of 20 children, he brought the full weight of the presidency into a fight for background checks on all gun sales. He tasked Vice President Joe Biden with executing the strategy, and Biden embraced the challenge with vigor.

Biden would have his work cut out for him. At that time, even though there was a Democratic majority in the Senate, the only bills that saw the light of day were those supported by the gun lobby.

For a number of years my organization, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, was one of just a few groups lobbying Congress on gun violence prevention efforts. But after Newtown, things changed rapidly. Organizations were formed or expanded with significant resources, new allies sprung up overnight, gun violence survivors from all over the country converged on the Capitol. I remember being in a meeting with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and a group of survivors and advocates from Newtown. Reid had flirted with supporting background checks in the past but was basically voting with the NRA during Obama’s first term.

But at this meeting, Reid was very emotional. He had changed his mind, and he assured us that a package of bills including background checks would come to the Senate floor and all members would have a chance to vote. In his very quiet voice — I had to lean in just to hear him — he described how his father had taken his own life with a gun, and he could no longer idly sit by. At long last, there was a chance for meaningful reform.

Over the next several months there was a pitched battle in the Senate for the background check bill, and on a heartbreaking day in April, the package of bills was defeated. We got a majority but not the 60 votes necessary to pass a bill in the Senate. We were devastated. Had our leaders just turned their backs after the slaughter of innocent children and teachers?

This week’s Torah portion looks at a family turning its back on a member. It is the story of Joseph and his brothers. As you may recall, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous about the love that their father, Jacob, had for him.

Years later, immersed in a famine in their home land of Canaan, the brothers go off to Egypt in search of food. On the strength of his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph has become Viceroy of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh. When the brothers come to the Viceroy seeking food, Joseph conceals his true identity at first but ultimately reveals himself. He hugs his brothers who stare at him dumbfounded, unable to reconcile their own terrible actions with Joseph’s magnanimous love for them.

After their reunion, Joseph convinces his brothers to return to Canaan and bring their father, Jacob, back to Egypt. The story is often cited for the forgiveness and charity that Joseph shows to his brothers, but for our purposes tonight, I am most interested in what happens next.

Jacob is eager to be reunited with Joseph and to escape the famine in Canaan. On the way to Egypt, he stops at Beersheba to offer a sacrifice. That night he had a dream:

“And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and God said, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, hineni, ‘Here am I’. And God said ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation…”

Hineni, the answer to God, appears eight times in the Torah, often when God is requesting brave and difficult acts. When Abraham answered God’s call with “hineni,” God asked him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. When Moses responded with “hineni,” God’s request was to lead a revolution against the most powerful despot of the known world at that time. But with Jacob, God is not asking for anything more than Jacob putting one foot in front of the other. He is asking him to get moving. In fact, God is offering Jacob reassurance that even a man of 130 years of age can get out of his comfort zone, leave his homeland, and try something new, for the betterment of his children and their children.

My personal religious philosophy prevents me from believing that the killing of little children is ever part of God’s plan. But I do believe that the core of Judaism is to listen for that call to action when the world needs repairing.

Just as Jacob prepared to be uncomfortable, so did an unprecedented number of Americans after Sandy Hook. Despite the devastating setback of losing the Senate vote after Sandy Hook, from my vantage point something more significant was going on. And I believe it was a hineni moment. Americans who for years were too uncomfortable to get involved said, “I am here.” Yes, some senators gave into their fears of the gun lobby and avoided listening to God’s cry, but millions of Americans not only heard it, but responded.

I can’t tell you how many calls I have received since Sandy Hook that say, “I’m not an activist. I am uncomfortable being an activist, but I’m embarrassed that I have been silent. What can I do?” And in response, I ask them to lobby, to call, to write, to join, to march, to have those uncomfortable talks across the Thanksgiving table or across the fence or at the PTA meeting. And people are doing it. They are showing up. They are having those talks. They are making their voices heard. And the result is a gun violence prevention movement that is exponentially stronger than we were six years ago.

We are at the cusp of significant change, but we seem to be reminded on a daily basis that the change can’t come fast enough. We are still reeling from the deaths of high school students in Parkland and the minion makers in Pittsburgh and the relentless day-to-day gun homicides and suicides that rarely make headlines. Lives are on the line, and this work is too urgent for us to be self-congratulatory or to think that our part is done. But it is also important to reflect on our progress, because doing so gives us hope, and hope is a critical component of change. So let me tell you where we have seen signs of real movement:

- Since Sandy Hook, dozens of states have passed new measure to keep guns away from domestic violence abusers, and 10 states have expanded their background checks laws.

- In the last three years, we have worked with state legislators to pass 11 new extreme risk laws that allow law enforcement and family members to petition a judge to remove firearms from people at risk of harm to self or others.

- Gun violence prevention groups like mine are working hand-in-hand to maximize our effectiveness.

- Young people have taken leading roles in the gun violence prevention movement post-Parkland and are adding incredible energy to our state and federal lobbying efforts.

- The forces for gun violence prevention outspent the gun lobby in this year’s midterm election for the first time ever.

- Soon-to-be speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that the House would pass a comprehensive background check bill early in the new session.

These are all things to be proud of, but we can’t sugarcoat the challenges ahead. I wish I could tell you that there won’t be setbacks or that there won’t be another mass shooting, but I don’t want to lie. We face a great challenge, but each individual who stands up has a chance to help make gun violence rare and abnormal. Each of us can put one foot in front of the other and get moving. And if you listen closely you will hear your name being called to that task. It might come in a dream, it might come while watching the news, it might come while picking your child up at school, but the question will be the same: will you let your discomfort block out the call or like Jacob will you answer back, “Hineni.”

Shabbat Shalom.