Asher Meza is not against Jews in Virginia legally arming themselves. He said that many Jews in Israel carry weapons for protection.
RICHMOND - While a rabbi prayed in a Richmond synagogue, a group of Orthodox Jews passed around an AK-47 before a ceremony celebrating the end of the Sabbath.
Asher Meza, a 32-year-old Orthodox Jew, made a video of himself showing guns to a group of young men at a private synagogue in his friend's home and then posted the video on YouTube and Facebook.
The whole thing doesn't sit well with the Richmond Jewish community.
"I wasn't trying to make a statement, but a statement was made," said Meza, a former Baptist preacher who converted to Judaism and studied to be a rabbi.
"I'm not advocating for everyone to walk around with an AK-47, but I walk around with a handgun on the Sabbath, and I think it would be better if most Jews did. It's better to have the gun and not need it than need it and not have it, especially in a religious environment."
But Tommy Baer, a Richmond attorney who was president of B'nai B'rith International, a Jewish service organization, called that statement "vigilante nonsense." He said he viewed the video with "complete revulsion" and found it offensive.
"Weapons, especially … an automatic rifle, have no place in a synagogue," Baer said.
The video was made the evening of the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is Jewish, and the killing of six others. The alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, has been described by investigators as mentally unstable.
Several local rabbis said they aren't sure what Meza's video means. Most were dismissive of him and said they didn't want to give him attention.
Rabbi Yossel Kranz of Chabad of Virginia, a Jewish outreach organization and synagogue on Gaskins Road, said Meza's video has "nothing to do with religion."
"From a Jewish perspective, his philosophy and ideas have no standing whatsoever," Kranz said.
Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami, who served as a military chaplain for 22 years, said bringing weapons into a place of worship "borders on inappropriate."
"I would not, in the midst of a worship experience, bring a fake, let alone a real, AK-47," he said. "It's the antithesis of what the Sabbath is for me."
The video was filmed Jan. 8 after the Sabbath ended but while the celebration continued inside the Henrico County home of Meza's friend, Joseph Kolakowski,a former rabbi at Congregation Kol Emes in Richmond.
Kolakowski said he thinks some people in the local Jewish community are overreacting to the video. However, he was annoyed that while he was praying, Meza, a gun collector and hunter who feeds the kill to his dogs, passed around his guns.
He found it disrespectful. "It was a lack of proper synagogue decorum during the prayers," he said.
When Meza posted the video, Kolakowski asked him to take it down. Meza, a computer programmer, initially refused.
But then one of the synagogues where Kolakowski worships, the Rudlin Torah Academy boarding school, asked him not to return for a while, because school leaders were uncomfortable with the video, which got about 2,000 hits in five days. After that, Meza made the YouTube video private.
Meza moved to Richmond in 2009 to work with Kolakowski at Kol Emes. Soon after he arrived, Kolakowski was dismissed. He later founded a Hasidic institute to grow the community, and they worship together and minister to students at Virginia Commonwealth University. Meza is not Hasidic.
Meza is developing an online ministry through Facebook and nine websites he maintains, including the Spanish serjudio.org, as well as BeJewish.org and GunsandFaith.com.
He is the son of Colombian immigrants who grew up in Miami. He studied to be a rabbi in Israel and then moved to Henrico with his wife and daughter. Next month, he is moving to New York to be part of a larger Jewish community.
He said his video warns Jews to take precautions because "being religious has become synonymous with being weak."
"In this day and age, with all the Jew hatred going around, there is no reason why a (Jew) should not pack heat on Shabbos," he said in another YouTube video he made in December.
Meza shows off 10 guns, loading and unloading them and pointing them at the camera.
Quoting the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, he says "Every Jew a .22." then adds, "Perhaps we could do with a little bit more power."
He then implores video watchers to "go to your local gun store and start packing."