David Bendory is not your typical Orthodox Jewish rabbi.
To start, he’s a certified National Rifle Association instructor. He takes congregants to the firing range, and he believes every Jew should know how to use a gun.
Bendory, 45, is the rabbinic director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a Wisconsin-based, 5,700-member strong nonprofit organization that bills itself as an “educational civil rights organization” with one goal: end gun control.
"The purpose of our organization is plain and simple: to destroy gun control. Gun control is poison, that simple,” executive director Charles Heller, who is responsible for day-to-day decisions, told TheBlaze.
JPFO, as the organization is known, put out books and DVDs on the origins of gun control, including a film called “No Guns for Jews” which “documents the history of arms control against the Jewish people,” Heller said. Among other things, JPFO holds that the Gun Control Act of 1968 was taken almost entirely from Nazi-era weapons law, and it sells posters and bumper stickers bearing the Internet-famous slogan, “All in favor of gun control, raise your right hand” – complete with an image of Hitler in the Nazi salute.
Bendory’s role as rabbinic director is to ensure that JPFO stays true to Jewish principles. He believes self-defense – and with it, the freedom to own guns – is an inherently Jewish value.
“God has given you the precious gift of life, and just like any precious gift, you have the responsibility to care for that and treat it with the proper respect,” Bendory told TheBlaze. “The Talmud has a teaching that if someone is coming to killing you, strike him down first. That effectively means that while initiating violence is not ever an appropriate thing to do, violence when used in defense of self is not only righteous, but a required responsibility.”The Essex County, N.J. rabbi estimates he’s introduced about 180 Jews to shooting. One reason he thinks every Jewish person should have a working knowledge of firearms is simple: history.
“I think that given Jewish history, I think every Jew should know how to use a firearm. It’s just a reality,” Bendory said. “I’m not saying every Jew should be a gun owner or a Second Amendment advocate, but Jews should know how to shoot a gun…that’s a skill that every Jew should have.”
Bendory himself grew up in southern New Jersey, in a “pretty typical liberal Jewish Democratic home, where gun control was a given.”
“We weren't allowed to play with guns as kids, we weren’t allowed to play cops and robbers,” he said.
He began questioning that during his first trip to Israel, the first time he saw an actual firearm in the arms of an Israeli soldier.
“[I said] wow, look at all these people with guns to protect me and these are Jews,” Bendory said. “These are Jews protecting other Jews.”
But it was the 2008 Mumbai attacks that turned him into a public advocate for firearm training, when Islamic terrorists murdered more than 150 people in a three-day rampage, including specifically seeking out the local Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch house and killing the rabbi and his wife.
“When I saw that, and when I saw how many Jews put their heads in the sand following that one, I said I’ve got to be more public on this issue,” Bendory said.
He has an idea why American Jews seem particularly hesitant about firearms, and -- though little polling exists on the subject -- seem to favor legislation restricting them.
“We as Jews believe in the messianic age, we don't want to live in a world where guns are necessary, so, quite foolishly, there are many Jews who close their eyes to the necessity,” he said.
Heller, JPFO’s executive director, put it another way: "Jews tend to be legalistic…we tend to be law obeyers and tend to be reliers on law rather than rely on force, that's just the way we're oriented.”
Another part of it is that there just isn’t a “Jewish gun culture.”
“They have no index, they have no way of knowing about guns and unless they’re in military service or they grow up maybe in scouting, they have no experience of the gun culture,” Heller said. “They believe what they see on television and it's just insane. It's not rational to believe that limiting guns is a measure of your safety.”
In The Minority
It’s safe to say that Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is firmly in the minority among Jewish organizations in America. After the Newtown, Conn. massacre, many of the country’s most prominent Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, came out strongly in favor of President Barack Obama’s new gun control proposals.
“As a community that has experienced mass violence, we appreciate the careful consideration that is being given to this issue,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a statement earlier this month. “It is a national priority and we must keep up the momentum.”
Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told TheBlaze that the majority of American Jews unquestionably support gun control.
“The Jewish community wants to protect lives,” Laser said. “There's this Jewish expression, ‘B'tzelem Elohim,’ which is that we're all created in the image of God …we feel like there are Jewish texts and traditions that compel us to help prevent this loss of life that's happening everywhere from the Newtowns to the streets of Chicago.”
There’s another issue, which is invoking the Holocaust and Nazi rule to make a point about gun control. The Anti-Defamation League released a statement last week calling on gun control legislation opponents to “stop using references to Hitler and the Nazis,” calling them “historically inaccurate and offensive.”
"The idea that supporters of gun control are doing something akin to what Hitler's Germany did to strip citizens of guns in the run-up to the Second World War is historically inaccurate and offensive, especially to Holocaust survivors and their families,” Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said.
There’s legitimate academic criticism about the gun control-Nazi regime argument. In a 2004 paper that specifically criticized JPFO, Bernard Harcourt of the University of Chicago Law School wrote: “The Nazis sought to disarm and kill the Jewish population. Their treatment of Jewish persons is, in this sense, orthogonal to their gun-control views.”
“Nevertheless, if forced to take a position, it seems that the Nazis were relatively more pro-gun than the predecessor Weimar Republic, as evidenced by the overall relaxation of the laws regulating the acquisition, transfer and carrying of firearms reflected in the 1938 Nazi gun laws,” Harcourt wrote.
JPFO is unfazed by the criticism, insisting they've done their research and remain steadfast in their mission to abolish gun control.
Heller said JPFO’s main focus right now is to grow its membership. The 24-year-old organization has increased from 3,800 members to 5,700 in just the year and a half that he’s been at the helm.
And for Bendory, bringing two, sometimes very disparate, worlds together is a unique task. When people, especially Jews, are surprised to hear he's an Orthodox rabbi and an NRA instructor, he offers to bring them to the range so they can see firsthand how the other gun owners react to him.
“There’s this stereotype of redneck, anti-Semitic gun owners,” Bendory said. “Most people are very surprised by what they’ve found.”