Born and raised in San Francisco, I was a Manhattan transplant during college, rabbinical school, and a few years beyond. In the liberal and intellectual enclaves where I was educated — formally and informally — I did not know a single person who would fathom owning a gun, let alone keeping one in the glove compartment of their car. Then, I moved to Phoenix.
It was 117 degrees outside on the day I arrived. On finding my air conditioner broken, I set out to Trader Joe’s to fill my fridge with cold drinks and lots of ice cream. There, I was greeted by a huge sign hanging next to the entrance stating, “No Weapons on these Premises.” “No weapons??” I mumbled audibly, “Trader Joe’s is known for its tasty salsas and spiced pecans. What is this about weapons?”
As I met people during my first weeks in Phoenix, I started asking about the sign. I learned that owning a gun in Arizona — even within the Jewish community — wasn’t unusual. Apparently, I had chosen to become a rabbi in the Wild West. As I met congregants, I’d ask, “Do you have a gun?” With each affirmative answer, my shock grew deeper and my questions more incredulous. “Are there rabbis here with guns? Where do you keep your gun? Why do you have a gun?” People answered very openly about their gun ownership. When I asked the middle-aged president of the congregation — a real estate developer who drives a Cadillac convertible — his answer concurred with many other people’s: “Rattlesnakes,” he said. “Rattlesnakes??” I asked. While I could not fathom the scene, I heard that answer frequently. I never saw a rattlesnake in Arizona, aside from the one behind glass in the Sonoran Desert Museum.
The conversation about guns dominated my first few months in Phoenix. In addition to the still-puzzling reptile explanation, some people told me that it was human intruders they feared. They feel safer with a gun in the house, they said, since it would allow them to protect their families. Others told me that I shouldn’t worry, since I had probably unknowingly been in the presence of thousands of guns while riding the subway in New York. Still others told me that we as Jews, should respect our Constitutional right to bear arms, since many Jewish communities throughout history had no way to defend themselves from government-sanctioned anti-Jewish actions.
I never got used to the reality that many people in Arizona (and elsewhere in America) choose to exercise their right to carry a licensed gun. I often wondered if any of the synagogue employees had a gun…or maybe one of the parents of a student coming to a bat mitzvah rehearsal in my office. Did the little old lady in the front row on Friday night have a gun in her purse?
One Shabbat, an argument broke out between two congregants. Before I moved to Arizona, I would have felt sure that nothing more sinister than yelling would take place between two members of a synagogue in the parking lot. But once I realized that most of the Jews in Arizona pack heat in case they encounter a particularly aggressive rattlesnake — or fellow congregant?? — I couldn’t be so sure. Half joking, I stepped between the two arguing men and said, “Guys, you know we have a policy of no shooting in shul on Shabbes.”