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Rosh Hashanah 5782 Day 2: D'var Torah

Morissa Sobelson Henn

The video version is linked at the end of the D'var text.

Shana tova. My name is Morissa Sobelson Henn, and I am honored to have been asked to speak this morning. I grew up in Concord, nurtured by the TBJ family. Over the past two decades, as I’ve moved from apartments in Boston and Brooklyn to Salt Lake City, my continued membership at TBJ has helped me stay connected to this vibrant community.

Now, this journey has taken me back home. This summer, I moved back to New Hampshire with my husband Jamie and newborn daughter, Dorsey. We knew that this would be the ideal place for Dorsey to begin life. She’s stroller distance to her grandparents, Gary and Carol, while I have the chance to pursue a dream job as Associate Commissioner for the New Hampshire Department of Health & Human Services.

Jamie and I used to joke that we are the last people anyone wants to invite to a cocktail party because we spend our days staring into the abyss – Jamie’s career has been dedicated to combatting climate change, and I’ve spent much of my public health career trying to prevent “deaths of despair” by suicide, alcohol, and drugs.

This past year, we’ve not been alone in our dreary pontification. The fragile health of the public and planet is seemingly everyone’s shtick, and so much is at stake. Today I’d like to share some of the work I’ve done in Utah on the issue of suicide, and the ways in which the Jewish value of empathy has helped me to work on an urgent and complex public health issue.

In 2016 I was asked to come to Utah to help state leaders address skyrocketing rates of suicide. As my colleagues and I parsed the data, we came to discover that Utah’s high rates of suicide were actually being driven by access to firearms. Rates of suicide by methods other than firearm were no higher in Utah than the rest of the country. Where Utah was an outlier was in the proportion of people who, in the midst of a major life or psychological crisis, had immediate access to the most fast, fatal, and irreversible method of self-harm. Up until then, Utah had conceptualized of its suicide problem as one of failure to diagnose and treat mental illness. While improved access to mental health screening and care is critical, we knew empirically that it would not budge the state’s suicide rate. Only by addressing firearm access directly could we begin to move the needle on this public health crisis.

While stricter guns laws at first seemed like a logical approach, solely pursuing regulatory efforts was bound to fail in a cultural context where guns are extraordinarily popular and accessible. Instead, our approach as health professionals was to work in coalition with the gun community itself. Participants did not expect to agree on gun policy, but instead find agreement on a new social norm that no person in suicidal crisis should have ready access to a firearm. Similar to the way that shifts in social norms around drunk driving did not require all-out bans on cars or on alcohol, a shift in voluntarily putting space and time between a suicidal impulse and a gun was framed as a preventive, rather than prohibitive, strategy.

Over the following years, the work grew and grew. We taught over one thousand health professionals to engage in brief counseling interventions to reduce access to lethal means for high-risk patients. We undertook epidemiological research to ensure we had the data to inform prevention. We helped the Legislature pass new policies funding widespread distribution of gun safes and gun locks. And on and on. Shortly before he died, Representative John Lewis invited me to the U.S. House of Representatives to share these stories of finding common ground, and how Utah’s decline in firearm suicides over the past several years has contributed to the first sustained flattening of the state’s suicide rate.

Finding common ground between health professionals and gun owners hasn’t always been easy. There is something unexpected, even paradoxical about such partnership. Most people would assume that the two groups have opposite interests in mind relative to gun violence. However, I have found that open dialogue is not only possible, but is strategically necessary. As COVID-19 has revealed, having public health professionals armed with data and a megaphone is rarely adequate to change the behavior of large populations. The message, and the messengers, matter greatly. By building productive and trusting relationships with gun owners around the issue of suicide, we aimed to translate data into culturally-relevant messages spread by the best-positioned messengers.

To embark on this required collaborating with people very different from myself, spending many hours in gun ranges, gun shops, and conservative talk radio studios. The gun owners and advocates I worked with most closely in this effort were people with whom I disagreed on many things, and yet we coalesced around a somewhat profound recognition: that we all want our communities and loved ones to be safe. Every single gun owner I met had grieved the loss of a family member or friend to suicide. We united not over our differences, but over a shared sense of horror and heartbreak, and over a desire for change.

Empathy is foundational in our faith. Thirty-six times in the Torah we are told “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger. You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The notion of not just caring for others but feeling the feelings of total strangers is quite profound! It was the TBJ community that first revealed for me how growing up Jewish – especially in New Hampshire – offers us a certain empathetic superpower. It comes from navigating the frequent tension between wanting to assimilate and blend in with others on one hand – while on the other hand acknowledging difference and respecting separation. As Jews, we have the capacity to feel a deep sense of curiosity about and connection toward people who are “othered.”

I’ll never forget what it felt like to move through the crowd in the gymnasium after a March for our Lives event to thank the head opposition organizer for the respectful presence of his Second Amendment group and to ask for his reflections on the event. He stared at me for a few moments. Then he told me how much it had meant that I’d come over to shake his hand, and how sad and self-conscious he’d felt when he overheard people saying that his group would be a threat to the safety of the event, when “our goal is just the opposite: to save lives while protecting our rights.” This individual became a critical informant to me in the months ahead, helping me understand the attitudes and beliefs underlying gun ownership that have important implications for gun violence prevention efforts. While we have very different backgrounds, we had connected with the other’s human decency. This was a very Jewish experience for me. Rabbi Brett Krichiver explains, we Jews “are commanded to place ourselves in unfamiliar shoes; to consider what dreams, what frustrations, what emotions motivate other people, and to avoid the danger of isolating ourselves within our own experiences. We can only fulfill this mitzvah of loving the stranger, when we can understand the stranger’s point of view.”[1]

The Jewish people are also beneficiaries of others’ empathy. As Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg wrote, “When Pharaoh’s daughter first glimpsed baby Moses on the Nile, she saw the Divine Presence with him in his floating refuge. If [Adonai] could silently enter the world of a crying infant, she realized, surely an Egyptian princess could penetrate the world of oppressed slaves. And so she rescued Moses. Empathy was at the root of redemption.”[2] I personally experienced the empathy of others after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. I was in rural Utah at the time, hundreds of miles from any Jewish community. That night, several gun owners I know reached out. I suspect that I am one of the only Jews they know. One wrote: “Morissa, our hearts are with you and the Jewish people everywhere tonight. Hate will not prevail, it will be defeated altogether. So very sad tonight.” The gun community may have seemed like an unlikely source of support at this time. But their comments embodied the values of community safety, social change, and preventing persecution that I’d heard over and over.

Through my work on suicide and firearms, I have seen firsthand how relating to people different from ourselves is not just a moral imperative, but a strategic necessity. Since ancient times, our tradition has shown us that empathy is not passive or weak, but a catalyst of action and source of strength.

We are living in a time of major threats to our health as people, communities, and a planet. We face intense political and social polarization. As we begin the New Year, I wish all of us the continued gifts that Judaism and TBJ has given me: an example of flourishing community, a model for thinking imaginatively and critically, and an ability to find the worth and wisdom not only in ourselves but in those who seem most different from us.

Click here to view the video.



Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784