Cheshire, Conn. — If congressional candidate Rabbi Shaul Praver had a campaign slogan, it just might be “Solutions with sechel” (Hebrew for common sense).
The 58-year-old rabbi recently entered the race for Connecticut’s 5th District as a Democrat. Or more specifically, as a “bold, progressive candidate” who hopes to bring common sense — and compromise — to the Capitol.
“You have to find the golden middle road. Our sacred book, the Talmud, is a book of arguments. We need to have civil, robust dialogue. We need to hear each other’s narrative to be able to solve problems,” said Rabbi Praver, who if elected would be the first rabbi to serve in Congress.
Praver spoke with The Times of Israel sitting near the visitor’s entrance to the Cheshire Correctional Institute, a Level 4 high security prison.
As a chaplain for the state’s Department of Correction, Rabbi Praver administers to a very different congregation than the one he once led at the Conservative movement’s Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown. And working in the prison system is very different from helping shepherd the small town in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But in some ways, both experiences prepared him for public office, the rabbi said.
“When I was called to the Sandy Hook firehouse to counsel the families whose children and loved ones were murdered, I answered the call; when I was called to advocate for sane gun laws in Hartford, I answered the call; when I was called to prison ministry to counsel and teach incarcerated populations, I answered the call,” said Rabbi Praver in a statement announcing his candidacy.
The seat opened after Rep. Elizabeth Esty decided not to run for re-election after admitting she mishandled accusations against her former chief of staff who was accused of threats and violence against female staffers. The primary is Aug. 14.
Initially, the National Democrat Committee had asked either Mark Barden or Nicole Hockley to run for office. Newtown residents Barden and Hockley co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention group, after their children Daniel and Dylan were killed in the shooting. Both parents declined to enter the race saying it would take too much time away from parenting their surviving children during their high school years.
Rabbi Praver took up the gauntlet and is competing against six other candidates for the Democratic nomination. With a team of 12 volunteers, a campaign manager and treasurer, he has so far raised $25,000.
The rabbi’s published campaign platform includes “Medicare for all, financial campaign finance reform, investing in our infrastructure and putting people to work, free vocational and college programs offered for inner cities, prison reform and immigration reform,” as well as working for LGBTQ equality, climate change, legalizing marijuana and “ending regime change wars.”
Gary Rose, professor of political science at Sacred Heart University and 5th District resident, said Rabbi Praver’s ideology is in line with his district.
“Bernie Sanders did very well in Connecticut and the progressive wing of the party is very strong here [in the 5th District]. So he could be a viable candidate, but it’s a crowded field and some candidates have more name recognition,” said Rose.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Rabbi Praver was called to the Sandy Hook firehouse where families of the school’s students and staff waited.
“I just knew that my life would never be the same when I walked through that door. I could see it in the faces of the parents,” he said.
Initially he understood the school’s principal and psychologist had been killed and one teacher shot in the foot. As the morning unfolded he, and those gathered at the station, learned 26 people died.
“At that point, while holding hands with parents, I vowed to myself I would do everything I could in my life to make sure this would not happen again. I didn’t realize it then, but I was making a vow of public service,” Rabbi Praver said.
The nation first met Rabbi Praver when he sang “El Maleh Rachamim,” the Hebrew memorial prayer, during an interfaith vigil with then-President Barack Obama. He also counseled the family of Noah Pozner, the youngest person of the 20 first graders and six adults murdered on that cold and sunny December day.
And he helped mediate sweeping changes to Connecticut’s gun laws.
In 2013 the state passed some of the strictest gun laws in the country. They broadened the scope of what the state classifies as assault weapons and banned more than 150 gun models. The sale of gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds is now prohibited and a permit is required to buy any type of gun or ammunition. The state also now has a registry of deadly weapon offenders and a universal background check system.
In 2016 Rabbi Praver founded Global Coalition for Peace and Civility to fight gun violence. At first the group engaged in what Praver described as “civil robust dialogs with people with differing ideologies.”
They sponsored an event at the Newtown congregational church in coordination with MoveOn.org founder Joan Blades. Three hundred people gathered to discuss firearms in America.
From his perspective, people need to understand that firearms can stand for different things in different parts of the country, Praver said.
“In deep rural areas they might represent safety, that you can be outside and not be afraid you’re going to get clawed to death. Firearms might mean hunting, or bonding with mom or dad. Or you might live too far away from police protection,” he said. “But I also don’t want to see assault weapons in the cities. I think we need more emphasis on training — the same kind of training you get when learning how to drive.”
He also wants to require people seeking gun permits to present two in-person references to testify for the applicant’s sanity, non-violent nature and upstanding reputation.
Rabbi Praver, who is also working on a doctor of ministry at the Hartford Seminary, wants to focus on the opioid epidemic and mass incarceration. As a prison chaplain he sees the effects of the crisis up close.
“I went into the prison ministry to help me process the shooting. I discovered that it’s not uncommon for people who have had an experience like that to have a need to replace the life that was taken. I wanted to turn hearts and minds around to a non-violent way of living. I wanted to see if I could save lives that way,” the rabbi said.
Connecticut now ranks 11th among the national drug overdose mortality rate. An average of three state residents die each day. There were 1,000 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly 50 percent of the crimes committed in Connecticut are drug-related offenses, according to Trend.org.
“The $40,000 a year it costs to house someone behind these bars should be put in front, in intervention. In intense intervention,” Rabbi Praver said, gesturing at the red brick prison on the other side of the lot.
Praver grew up in a secular home on Great Neck, L.I. He attended SUNY Purchase for two years before moving to Israel for what he thought would be a brief sabbatical from college. He stayed nearly 10 years, until 1989. While there, he completed his bachelor’s degree and earned an Orthodox ordination from the Jerusalem Rabbinate. He also trained to be a professional cantor at the Israeli School of Cantorial Art in Tel Aviv and studied to be a pastoral counselor.
Today, Rabbi Praver lives in Fairfield, a town located just outside the district. Connecticut doesn’t require that one live in the district one represents.
And while he left Adath Israel in 2015 because the synagogue could no longer sustain a full-time rabbi’s salary, he’s continues to serve the district through his chaplaincy and involvement with the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association where he is working to create a volunteer program with the Newtown clergy in the local correctional facility there.
The rabbi also worked to raise awareness of anti-Semitism, and at one point served as Judaic scholar-in-residence at Newtown Congregational church. And he once hosted a weekly cable-access TV Jewish cultural program.
Of course, Rabbi Praver isn’t the first candidate who envisions tackling a large agenda. So how does he plan to resist the morass and impasse that seems to lurk in Congress?
He referred to the chapter in Leviticus that says, “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.”
“That fire is like your inner spiritual wellspring. The day a representative no longer has the fire burning within is the day he or she should quit,” Rabbi Praver said.
“We can despair sometimes and think nothing can change, but the only thing that never changes is change itself. In the story of Egypt there were slaves who said, ‘I’ve been a slave my whole life. Nothing is going to change.’ Then it did change, and that change is called hope,” he said.