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A call to action on gun violence; what's in a name?

Alan and Sharon Weissman, Tsila Schwartz

Artist Tsila Schwartz (right) presents certificates to Alan and Sharon Weissman during a naming ceremony at Shaare Emeth on Friday. Congregants who had never received a Hebrew name were given one during the congregation’s “Shabbat of Names.” For a gallery of images, visit stljewishlight.com/multimedia. Photo: Yana Hotter

As phone calls go, Missouri State Representative Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, gets more than her fair share. But she was still surprised by the outpouring following the Dec. 14th massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead.

“I was inundated with calls and emails from constituents and supporters wanting to know what they could do,” said Newman. “What are our choices? How do we prevent this in the future? Where can we get involved? The questions and concerns kept on coming.”

Newman says gun control has long been a seminal issue to her as well as to Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves — the two actually met at the Million Mom March against gun violence in 2000. They decided, along with Rabbi Susan Talve, to host a free, community-wide forum on gun violence at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Boulevard. Ray Hartmann, publisher of St. Louis Magazine and a regular on Channel 9’s “Donnybrook,” will moderate the forum, which is sponsored by CRC and Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.

“The focus is to talk about what community leaders are doing, what’s happening on a state level in Jefferson City and what’s happening on a federal level in Washington,” said Newman, adding that when the 2013 Missouri Legislature opens this week, she will introduce a bill “to close the gun show loophole.”

“This bill will make sure there are background checks for all gun sales,” she said. “Forty percent of guns sold are sold at gun shows or through the Internet, where no background checks are required. Background checks need to occur on all guns no matter where they are sold.”

Newman also wants St. Louisans to be aware of legislation filed in December by Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, which would let teachers and administrators with concealed-gun permits bring their weapons to school without the need of local approval. The bill, with more than two-dozen sponsors, has the support of several high-ranking Missouri lawmakers, including House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country.

“We know more guns don’t equal more safety,” said Newman. “I’m pleased (Missouri Governor Jay Nixon) has come out against this and written to the 520 school superintendents in the state that this is the wrong approach. We’ve heard from several rural superintendents who feel this bill is just wrong.”

Currently, Missouri law allows concealed guns to be carried by people age 21 and older who have no felony convictions, are not mentally incompetent, and pass a firearms training course and a background check. But state law prohibits concealed guns from being brought into schools unless approved by the local school board or a school official.

Newman says those at the forum “will leave with a concrete list of things they can do to get involved and help end gun violence.”

She adds: “There is renewed interest in a grassroots movement for gun control. Rep. Kirkton and I want people here to know they don’t have to be in New York or Washington, D.C. to get things done.”

What’s in a name?

Shakespeare may have intimated a lack of importance to what something — or someone — is called, but to many Jewish people, a Hebrew name is integral to their identity.

Rabbi James Bennett at Congregation Shaare Emeth understands this. So he decided to bestow Hebrew names onto congregants who requested one at a “Shabbat of Names” ceremony last Friday. He chose the date because the week’s parasha was “Shemot,” which means “names,” though it was the first portion in the book of Exodus.

“This was something I had done before at my congregation in North Carolina,” Bennett explained, “but never here.”

Nearly 20 congregants applied in advance to get their Hebrew names. Bennett said the reason for them not having one fell into one of three categories: They either had grown up non-observant or they were never given one at birth (this is especially true among older women) or they were children of intermarriage. Several congregants knew exactly the name they wanted, or for whom they wanted to be named. In other cases, they asked the rabbi to help choose.

“One person struggling with sickness wanted a new name because there is a superstition in Judaism that a name change will change one’s fortune,” said Bennett. “Another said they knew they would die one day and wanted their Hebrew name on their tombstone.”

While the rabbi doubts the naming service will become an annual event, he expects to do another again in the future.

“To have the whole congregation on Shabbat share in this, to stand in a semi-circle around the bima and feel affirmed by their community, it was a very special, beautiful evening,” Bennett said.

 

Slam, dunk

My pal Simone Bernstein, a Clayton High School graduate and co-founder of Volunteen Nation, which champions volunteer opportunities for teens, wants to get the word out about a fun event for children ages 6 to 12 who fall on the autism spectrum. From 10:30 a.m. to noon Monday, Jan. 21 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), Volunteen Nation, along with Autism Speaks and the city of Clayton, will host a free basketball clinic at the Center of Clayton, 50 Gay Avenue. Local high school and college volunteers will provide one-on-one individualized instruction for each participant. To register, contact Sophia Rotman at volunteennation.org. Be sure to include the name of the child, parent email, parent cell phone number and any additional information.

Oh, and by the way, Simone, 20, and her brother Jake, 18, were recently named as two of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” top entrepreneurs.

“Jake and I were truly honored and humbled,” said Simone, referring to the honor.  “It is truly all about tikkun olam, repairing and healing divisions and inequities in the world.”