From the passing of Aaron Zelman in December 2010 to its Adoption by the Second Amendment Foundation in September 2014.
by Alan Korwin
with guidance from
Rabbinic Director Dovid Bendory
former Executive Director Charles Heller
former Board of Directors officer Bob Meier
Washington, DC –-(Ammoland.com)- When Aaron Zelman left this world on December 21, 2010, after 21 years as the founder and mastermind behind Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO), he left the world a significant ideological legacy.
JPFO was Aaron’s invention and creation, and like similar constructs, it reflected him uniquely from top to bottom. There was no other Moses figure to step in and take over. He had put his people on the path out of an iron bondage of mental oppression, a firearm slavery that took social, psychological and physical forms.
JPFO served a function matched by no other group in the freedom struggle, mobilizing a constituency that up to that point lacked voice. Oddly enough, it resonated as loudly with Gentiles as with Jews, a point that surprised Aaron but one he took in stride.
He happily accepted any support in the quintessential battle that would never again allow government—or anyone—to attempt to wipe out His People—or anyone.
The organization with the long perceptive name had a precariously thin bench. The only insider allies were a small “inner circle” of staff and associates when Zelman left us, and that cast of characters was as short as a one-act off-Broadway play. No one stood out or stood up as the heir apparent. A half-hearted low-key search began.
Without the unfathomable efforts of Lavonne Schuett, Aaron’s right-hand woman, secretary, office manager, and of late, Board Member, JPFO might have died right there within a few months of him. This is little known. She kept that office in Wisconsin humming, filling orders, taking care of business, paying the bills, handling members’ inquiries. Thank G-d Lavonne was in place—she made it seem like JPFO was the machine the world thought JPFO was.
Don’t get me wrong, JPFO was indeed a machine, with thousands of members, and a vast legacy of groundbreaking documentaries, books, white papers, and leadership in the gun-rights movement that no one else can touch. When no one else would stand up and call the criminals in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the jack-booted thugs they are, and call for their elimination, JPFO was there four-square pulling no punches.
To this day, no one holds a candle to JPFO when it comes to calling out the Gestapo-like tactics we face from the enemies of freedom who deceptively cloak themselves in good-guy federal garb. Just look at Boot The BATF or The Gang issued by JPFO for a taste of that dish.
But without Lavonne handling the day-to-day affairs of a non-profit, this non-profit might have ground to a halt, and people worldwide would have just numbly wondered what happened.
Unsung Heroes Kept JPFO Alive
Lavonne was not alone. Behind her was Bob Meier, Board Member number two, though he was the untitled Chairman of the three-member Board. It was Bob who pulled the strings unseen behind the scenes, the angel who filled in the gaps when it was needed. He and Aaron had run the organization hand-in-hand for more than a decade, because it was Bob who more than anyone understood the importance of Aaron’s work, and knew it could not fail or falter for lack of funds. He opened his checkbook as needed and generously filled in the not-infrequent requirements.
This gave Bob a commanding role in the four-year transition period, and he did it with a magnanimous hand, seeking to have the rudderless ship steer a sane course. No one knew for sure what that course was or should be, the ship just sailed on. Enter Kirby Ferris, a firebrand and close confidant of Aaron’s who, as another member of the inner circle, took one of the active roles in directing the ship, while Bob and Lavonne helped keep it afloat and cruising.
Kirby found me and I liked him right away. Outspoken and brimming with energy, he was as philosophically pure and principled as anyone I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m fortunate to know a handful of such individuals, I gravitate toward them and vice versa, a stroke of fate for which I am constantly thankful. We spoke endlessly, lamented the trials and tribulations, and helped steer the ship around the shoals, often unseen.
Years earlier it was my distinct honor and pleasure to have had lunch with Aaron after the Gun Rights Police Conference—I don’t recall the exact date unfortunately, probably around 2006 or so—though I didn’t fully recognize how auspicious that meal was at the time. I had been a fan of JPFO and their work, and was mightily impressed with Aaron’s speech at the conference.
He invited me to break bread, and we had one of those immediately engaging talks that happen when people like us sit. It was just food in the hotel lobby before flight time, and it was deeply meaningful, which I didn’t realize until later. We remained in contact from then right up until his passing, a loss I felt deeply and do to this day.
The Search for an Executive Director
So it was with a great deal of appreciation of the cosmic nature of the request when, a few weeks later Kirby told me JPFO needed a leader and he asked me if I would accept the role. This would be a great honor and a tremendous responsibility, and one I would have to decline.
In my heart of hearts I knew I could fulfill the task, it’s just that my plate was already overloaded, as it has been for decades, to my happy displeasure. I have my own business to run (Bloomfield Press and GunLaws.com), and I neglect that way too often for every pressing rights struggle that crosses my path. Running JPFO is not merely a struggle, it is a calling. We would need to find someone else. I agreed to aid in the quiet search.
Through all this Rabbi Dovid Bendory actively fulfilled his role as spiritual advisor, the Rabbinic Director of JPFO, counseling us all, assuring that the group’s moral compass was properly set. Dovid had one of the closest relationships with Aaron, and channeled him, if that’s a suitable word in a Jewish setting, as we ran the ship without its proper captain.
Some of the best writings during this period came from the Rabbi’s pen, including a widely disseminated piece circulated through the auspices of Lenny Magil’s Glock Store, an insert that went into untold customer’s packages—Five Reasons Why You Should Want High-Capacity Magazines. The no-compromise ethic blazed on.
There are a surprising number of Jews high up in the gun-rights battle, despite the fact that modern Jews in America, in general, are adamantly, ferociously, counterintuitively against gun rights, and who illogically wish guns would “just go away.” They are hard-core left liberals, and stand against almost everything gun-rights advocates support.
JPFO’s Rabbi and I wrote a White Paper on this, Why Jews Hate Guns, and it stands as the definitive statement on why this is so. No need to reiterate the reasons here (read it on the link above) or in the prior issue of The Sentinel. When you ask these folks what they think Never Again! means, they’re likely to say it means the Holocaust will never happen again. They are victims of their own victimhood.
Unfortunately in the search for a new Executive Director, many of the leading Jewish candidates—and the new ED must be Jewish of course—who are perfectly aligned in principle, proper mindset and outstanding credentials, are or were officers in the NRA.
If you know anything, you know Aaron Zelman and the NRA did not see eye-to-eye. To be more clear, they are oil and water, cats and dogs, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
As ideal as a candidate might be, if the person hails from the NRA, that would place at least a perception of taint—in the eyes of die-hard JPFOers—that would make the person untenable. The echo of, “You’ve sold out to the NRA!” would never die, and they would forever say poor Mr. Zelman is spinning in his grave, even if it wasn’t true. Such a person could never poke the NRA hard in the eye, when it needs a solid poke. Speaking truth to power is a JPFO hallmark.
If you doubt this for a nanosecond, see Aaron Zelman’s seminal letter, “I’ll join the NRA when…” You folks in the NRA—you need to re-read and heed Aaron’s sagacious words. Ted Nugent, it’s time to respond to Aaron’s letter, which was addressed to you, which you never did. With which of his points can you honestly disagree?
At our luncheon, Aaron had said to me, “If the NRA had its way, every gun owner would need a permit to have a gun, and the NRA would be the issuing authority.”
It shocked me at the time. And it burned into memory. It’s how Aaron was. And I’ve seen signs of it in far too many “theoretically” pro-rights organizations. And way too many gun owners too, who think their wallet-sized plastic-coated carry-permit permission slips are slicker than snot, which they show off with ludicrous pride—instead of revulsion at the thought that they need papers to exercise their rights. But never even a hint of that at Aaron’s JPFO.
Enter the Promising Candidate
It dawned on me that Charles Heller in Tucson, who I trust and have personally known for a decade might be the right candidate. He is Jewish, a certified instructor and as gunny as anyone you’re likely to meet. He can talk the talk with the left or the right eloquently and articulately, having spent 13 years in talk radio, on programs he designed, produces and keeps on the air.
As Secretary and a founder of The Arizona Citizens Defense League, Charles has demonstrated the right stuff to help make Arizona the gun-friendliest state in the Union. (OK, some other states are admittedly in the running for that coveted title; but Guns and Ammo magazine granted it now two years running, GunLaws.com deemed it so in 2010 after AzCDL got Constitutional Carry enacted.)
With an OK from the Board, which includes unsung quiet third member Bruce Bell, the former Controller at Olympic Arms, who served on JPFO’s board for more than a decade, I asked and Charles accepted the position. JPFO had its first and only new Executive Director in its history.
Charles served admirably for a while. The organization was invigorated, we held phone conferences with the Rabbi, three board members, Kirby and myself, and in various combinations, much of it without me. I was just an outside ad hoc advisor. Agendas were set, fund-raising programs and membership drives were developed, trips were arranged, JPFO attended the SHOT Show, an Ambassador plan began to take shape for states.
JPFO Forged Ahead
Little by little, a stable of writers grew (completely outside my purview) and the flow of good solid eblasts went out under the unyielding stewardship of webmaster Chris Beglin, who never faltered. Chris was another bedrock without whom JPFO could not survive. Like Lavonne, he worked in an almost invisible background, keeping the frenetic website current, adding products as needed, posting papers as they were written, making everything look effortless.
The public had a face for JPFO. Charles is good with the media. They like him, and he knows how to relate to them. An organization has to speak with a single coherent voice, and Charles provided that in exemplary fashion. Where things began to fray was operationally.
No one else could be Aaron. He managed to juggle all the balls at the same time. How he raised all the money he did was nothing short of a miracle, and Charles for all his assets, was not a miracle worker. Charles and Kirby did not get along as famously as I did with either, and I spent long hours providing a shoulder, as did all of us with each other.
Bob spent way too much time smoothing waters, seeking advice, and financing his personal independent contractors to amplify the work Lavonne was doing on the database and fund-raising lists. At one point Bob called me the Rabbi’s Rabbi for all the counseling I was doing—not that Dovid needed it per se, but it was a cool phrase that I certainly didn’t mind. After some relatively smooth sailing, we were negotiating dangerously turbulent waters.
Then disaster struck. Kirby Ferris was called away from this Earth on June 13, 2012, and we lost one of the most outspoken remaining direct vestiges of radicalism in the inner circle (though we still had L. Neil Smith and the writers hard at work). That really hurt, even if it salved the friction between Kirby and Charles.
There still remained concerns between the Board and its replacement Executive Director. For all the things they wanted done, the vast list of unfilled things on the to-do list grew. Pressure on Charles grew as his performance came under ever increasing scrutiny and funding grew ever more precarious.
If that wasn’t enough, Lavonne suffered a stroke and we soon lost her. How could an organization survive this?
Any Jew who has asked why G-d let the Holocaust happen could certainly ask again why G-d lets bad things happen to good people —and good organizations— at this point. And only reply with G-d works in mysterious ways.
The Tectonics Shifted Internally
In a great stroke of luck and providence, Lavonne’s husband, formerly so far in the background that we didn’t fully realize he was there, Doug Schuett stepped up to the plate, and through his enormous personal grief picked up where his wife left off and started taking care of the Wisconsin office. Bob put him on the payroll and Board of Directors (replacing Lavonne) and things started to hum again.
His management style was very different than we were familiar with, it was mainly business and not ideologically driven, which was a good thing in most respects. JPFO had been a labor of love for most of its participants: love of Aaron, love of freedom, love of firearm rights (Aaron disparaged the idea of “gun rights,” guns don’t have rights, but our language lacks an adequate way to express the concept in a simple phrase). Doug approached things in a non-Jewish, business-efficiency model that worked. This was not exactly the style Charles had brought to the table.
With all the tumult, business had not been moving forward properly. Memberships, donations and cash flow were showing the strain. Bob, our angel, was reaching the end of his rope as well. When I met with the Rabbi on a trip to New York several years earlier I had asked, what happens to a group like this when it loses its leader?
He sagaciously replied that it can flounder around for a few years and quietly slip into the night, it can die a sudden death, or it can experience a rebirth in some fashion. It was our hope during that meeting in a quaint coffee shop in lower Manhattan that the third option would be the one (rebirth), though we both felt the first might be more likely (slow death), and we were sort of maybe watching that occur.
Not to lose hope, the inner circle decided we should produce tangible evidence of our existence, and a new edition of The Sentinel was commissioned and came out in January 2013. It was a blockbuster, very well received, contained some first-rate writing by L. Neil Smith, the Rabbi, Charles, Kirby, myself and others. It attracted praise, memberships and revenue. But one newsletter in a four-year period, and an unending series of eblasts does not an organization make.
Another Shift and a New Horizon
Eventually, the Board reached a decision to let Charles go, which he graciously accepted, stepping into the role of Public Relations Director, so there was still a name for the media to reach. An announcement was quietly made of the change. To this day, many still think Charles heads JPFO, but it has been without a real leader since May 2013.
By the summer of 2014, it became obvious JPFO could no longer continue as it was. The finances just weren’t there, not to mention the energy. Some of the writers, apparently led by Claire Wolfe, considered taking the group over, but they lacked the resources to do so. No other offers came about.
JPFO had commitments to its members and its creditors, including life members, and the Board of Directors of a non-profit cannot simply turn it over to any person or group that asks. Bob suggested the Board would have to see a six-figure commitment or an apparent ability to run the group for at least a year before he could in good faith hand over the responsibility. An offer to pay the next month’s bills was insufficient fiduciary standing to consummate a deal.
Meier had wisely suggested that without an evident ability to run JPFO for at least a year any proposal had to be looked upon askance. The only group on the horizon with that ability, and the interest, was Alan Gottlieb and the Second Amendment Foundation. Despite the Board’s legitimate wariness, and with a precarious time frame before an utter collapse, SAF consummated a deal to take JPFO under its wing.
Rumors flew, which was to be expected. My impression of Gottlieb’s move is that it is honorable, done in the best interests of JPFO and the gun-rights movement, and that the future is as unknown to him as it is to the rest of us.
As Meier framed it, Gottlieb, “assumed responsibility for the survival of JPFO with assurances that its fiercely radical positions will not be undermined.” As I came to understand it, Alan is relying on what’s left of the inner circle to keep JPFO running true. He certainly believes that having JPFO extant is better than seeing it pass away. The inner circle is unanimous in this sentiment.
The Big Pow Wow at GRPC 2014
At Gun Rights Policy Conference (GRPC) Chicago in September I called for and got a pow wow with the key players present, starting with Gottlieb, Massad Ayoob and Miko Tempski. Mas is certainly well known and highly respected in the gun-rights community, a Board member of SAF with a keen interest in JPFO. Miko is SAF’s general counsel. He drafted the papers for the transfer, and with Doug oversaw the packing and shipment of five palettes of JPFO materials from Wisconsin to Washington State, the new home of JPFO (at SAF HQ). You can think of them as the current SAF oversight committee. JPFO’s new official Board of Directors is Gottlieb, Tempski and Ohad Lowy, a former Israeli Defense Forces officer, now an Assistant Attorney General in Washington state.
Joining them at the meeting were Charles, myself and David Codrea, a JPFO writer and stalwart gun-rights advocate who people in this game know well. Along with the Rabbi and others we are the newly developing JPFO Board of Advisors who will be doing the legwork and designing, hmmm, the second coming of JPFO. There’s an interesting turn of phrase, eh?
Claire’s name came up numerous times in our hours of discussion into the night that night. While none of us approved of how she aired her complaints, to the extent her criticisms had merit and reflected fears many people hold—and they did—they provided valid direction.
JPFO must never lose its moral compass. We have a Rabbi to help us steer this course, and if we transgress against our principles we will have irreparably erred, though we recognize that as humans we probably will make some mistakes along the way. One of our standards has become WWAD, “What Would Aaron Do?” In the agenda I prepared for the meeting, I placed this guideline at the top, to which no one voiced any objection:
“How do we keep JPFO running true, what are the immediate needs and what are appropriate areas for expansion.”
The inner circle presently consists of Rabbi Bendory, Charles and myself, and along with Chris Beglin, and a handful of the writers like Codrea, Kurt Hofmann, L. Neil Smith and people we might not even know yet we’re going to generate the output. Richard Stevens, who was Aaron’s ally and co-author for a decade or more, is my neighbor and a close personal friend, and though he doesn’t have time to be fully involved, is a trusted confidant.
My apologies to the writers and others whose names I do not know. My involvement has been deep but not necessarily wide. Chris and the new team are in touch with those doing daily web output now, and Gottlieb has been moving the ship slowly forward. Meier and Bell, who want some distance at this point, are still in the wings and want to stay in touch.
We have set a few goals at GRPC for ourselves in the near term:
- Issue The Sentinel on a regular basis.
- Create a new Gran’Pa Jack #9 (already under way)
- Undertake a new DVD documentary
- Begin a membership drive
- Increase our presence in the Jewish community
Many other ideas are bubbling around. They will take time, money and especially shoe leather, a shortage of which has stymied JPFO’s efforts since this organization began.
AmmoLand readers you are encouraged to get involved by:
- a) donating sorely needed funds
- b) increasing your membership to a higher level
- c) joining if you’re not already a member
- d) getting your friends, Jewish or not, to join, and
- e) volunteering.
- Call or write to the office for opportunities to help.
We no longer have our “Moses” but his faithful followers and supporters are still very much alive and deeply committed. With the structure and support Alan Gottlieb has provided, and help from above, the future looks bright indeed.
Alan Korwin, JPFO Member and Instigator
Jews For The Preservation Of Firearms Ownership Mission is to destroy “gun control” and to encourage Americans to understand and defend all of the Bill of Rights for everyone. Those are the twin goals of Wisconsin-based Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). Founded by Jews and initially aimed at educating the Jewish community about the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed, JPFO has always welcomed persons of all religious beliefs who share a common goal of opposing and reversing victim disarmament policies while advancing liberty for all.
JPFO is a non-profit tax-exempt educational civil rights organization, not a lobby. JPFO’s products and programs reach out to as many segments of the American people as possible, using bold tactics without compromise on fundamental principles. Visit www.JPFO.org – Copyright JPFO 2011