Jewish teen turns tragedy into advocacy, shares a roundtable with the president

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Click photo to download. Caption: Sami Rahamim with his late father, Reuven, who was fatally shot on Sept. 27, 2012. Credit: Courtesy Sami Rahamim.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 26, 2012, Sami Rahamim was with his father Reuven at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn. On Feb. 4, 2013, 17-year-old Sami opened a roundtable discussion at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center meeting with President Barack Obama. 

In between? Reuven Rahamim was shot the day after Yom Kippur 2012 at the business he owned and created, Accent Signage Systems, and killed along with five others. The personal tragedy of experiencing the sudden violent death of his father galvanized Sami Rahamim to become a nationally relevant activist for changing gun control laws, hence his seat alongside Obama (to be precise, two seats away) at the Minnesota roundtable on gun violence.

Rahamim, whose email messages contain the tagline “Gun Violence Prevention Advocate,” has the goal “to be known for advocacy, not for the unfortunate circumstance that put me here,” he says in an interview with JNS.org. He is aware that he has experienced “not only grief but trauma,” and adds, “I can’t overstate how different you become after something like this.”

The guest of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) at Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Rahamim speaks with pride of the Jewish institutions that have contributed to his growth, from his preschool, the Aleph School at Beth El (a Conservative synagogue), to the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and his family. He says the morning minyan at Beth El has kept him going during these trying times.

“I don’t know where I’d be without that minyan,” he tells JNS.org. “I could not do the stuff I do without them.”

Rahamim values not just his own community, but is grateful to “Judaism as a whole by design, the whole concept of saying Kaddish, getting up, saying services before sunrise.”  He is glad that being at minyan at 7 a.m. each day means he is ”not wallowing around house, in bed.

“It is an obligation that you have to fulfill, the little nudge that many people need to figure out how to move on,” he says.

Regarding his current work, which includes speaking at organizations around Minneapolis and giving testimony to legislators, he says, “Faith for me, particularly, is extremely important not only in the grieving process but in a process that has motivated me to become so politically involved.” He had gone with his father, a native Israeli passionately committed to Israel advocacy, to the AIPAC national conventions in March 2011 and 2012, and before his father’s death had been invited to the teen AIPAC convention at the end of October 2012.

Rahamim’s main concern about attending AIPAC after his father’s passing was the availability of a minyan so he could to say the Kaddish prayer. AIPAC staffers connected him with Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, who runs a South Florida pro-Israel teen group, and Rahamim davened with them three times a day.

Most of the teens at last year’s national AIPAC convention came with youth groups, but Rahamim was invited to attend solo because AIPAC saw him as a “potential lobbyist,” he says. Rahamim adds that AIPAC gave him a “wide array of information, skills, and techniques that set me up to do political advocacy work for gun violence prevention.”

In a short time, Rahamim has developed the ability to quote statistics with a fluency and confidence beyond his years—such as the fact that 40 percent of guns are sold without any kind of background check. He then makes an analogy to flying.

“I’m not comfortable if 40 percent of people on the plane are without a background check, it’s insane to me,” he says, adding that there are seven times more homicides in U.S. than in the world’s other 25 industrialized nations.

Asked whether or not he had seen himself previously as a serious advocate, Rahamim says, “I always had an aptitude for advocacy, the tragic circumstance that brought me here has only accelerated what was similar to what I was going to do anyway.” His classmates at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School remember that in 2008, when their 8th grade class had a mock presidential debate, Rahamim volunteered to play the role of the current president, Obama. Less than five years later, he met the man.

Rahamim says he wants to prevent gun violence because, “Growing up in the Jewish faith, one of the main things I’ve learned over the years is the cherished value that life holds and how sacred human life is.” A dvar Torah (speech containing words of Torah) he gave at Beth El on Jan. 5, 2013 was attended by Rep. Ellison and greeted by a standing ovation from the congregation. In his sermon, Rahamim spoke of Moses’s upbringing “in a palace, seemingly oblivious to the injustices, pain, and suffering going on outside the palace gates… Moshe felt the pain of others and knew he had to act. We must act.”

Instead of attending classes at St. Louis Park High School, Rahamim is tutored at home and spends his time lobbying and testifying in the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, speaking to groups like the St. Joan of Arc Cathedral in south Minneapolis, where he spoke to 2,000 Catholics on Feb. 3, and writing op-eds for the Daily Beast and other outlets.

What comes next for this young advocate? Rahamim is considering the Aardvark Israel program (http://www.aardvarkisrael.com), the University of Wisconsin, or remaining close to home at the University of Minnesota. Asked how he will make his decision, Rahamim responds, “I am waiting to see how successful we are with our legislation this session, what I feel like I accomplish, and whether that follows up better with going to Israel or staying here.” He adds, “Stay tuned.”

Others, however, have already decided what lies ahead for him. After Rahamim gave his Jan. 5 dvar Torah, Rabbi Avi Olitzky pulled him aside and told him, according to Rahamim, “I don’t care what else you do, you are going to rabbinical school in four years.” Rahamim says he is in fact seriously considering that route.

Olitzky tells JNS.org he thinks the rabbinate, rather than politics, is Rahamim’s path because, “When you have a passion to care for the world and to change it in the same vein, clergy is a good avenue for that. He is finding his calling and it is an important one.”

Heather Martens—executive director of Protect Minnesota, the gun violence prevention organization that Rahamim has been working with—tells JNS.org that Rahamim “is an unusually effective advocate” and is “passionate and bright and old beyond his years.” Martens is very aware of how Rahamim’s faith has helped him with the grieving process, saying, “He has talked about wanting to be a rabbi. I can see that. He is processing this through the lens of the stories of Judaism and reflecting on the meaning of it using his understanding of religion.”

Martens sees Rahamim’s advocacy as “making something meaningful out of a horrible and meaningless tragedy.”

“It is a terrible thing for someone to have to find a voice in this way,” Olitzky says. “But Sami has found his voice and he is shouting.”    

Posted on February 11, 2013 and filed under Features, U.S..