Columbine High School, April 20, 1999 - 15 dead, 21 injured
Virginia Tech University, April 16, 2007 - 33 dead, 23 injured
Oikos University, April 2, 2012 - 7 dead, 3 injured
Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012 - 28 dead, 2 injured
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, February 14, 2018 - 17 dead, 14 injured
Will the list continue?
On March 24, just over a month after a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student used his legal semi-automatic rifle on his teachers and fellow classmates, Reform Jewish women joined together in every major city in North America to be part of the worldwide March For Our Lives. Marching with the anger from losing even more innocent lives, people showed up from every corner of the world to express their rage and demand action for gun violence prevention.
Here are some reflections of that historic day.
After working in the California legislature for 33 years, Eve Panush, active sisterhood member of B’nai Israel, said she had never seen something so ground-swelling as when youth took to the streets on March 24th.
“Often when you have kids involved, it gets attention,” Panush said. “This issue hits them personally.”
Panush had decided to attend the March For Our Lives following the shooting in Parkland, FL but solidified her decision when attending WRJ’s Fried Leadership Conference (FLC) earlier last month. During the Friday evening service at FLC, the women of Kol Tikvah Sisterhood of Parkland, FL were honored by the congregation during the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer of healing, as they were still mourning the loss of 17 innocent people within their community.
“That moment truly inspired me to take action,” Panush said.
Panush traveled to the march with her congregational family, with students of the religious school leading the group. She described the crowd as intergenerational, families and individuals alike marching through California’s capital. Chants and songs full of emotion energized people to march along the streets all afternoon.
As Betty Weiner, WRJ Northeast District Vice President of Marketing and Communications, arrived in Boston Common for the local march, she said she knew something would have to change from this act of civic participation.
“Our youth have new views, our youth have the energy,” Weiner said. “And people are tired of hearing from the older generation. New faces inspire people to get things moving.”
Unable to find friends in the crowd of thousands, Weiner and other WRJ women started talking to people around them to learn why they were marching. They met a 22-year-old who is now running for state representative in his home district. They met a public-school teacher marching for the safety of her students. They met many young couples with their children that made the day an entire family outing.
“It was rather empowering,” Weiner said.
Weiner decided to attend the march after hearing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alumna Abby Brafman’s speech at the closing plenary at FLC. She agreed with Commission on Social Action Chair Liz Dunst’s message saying that we have failed this generation by not doing more to prevent gun violence.
“I don’t know how someone could not have been moved to do something,” Weiner said.
Weiner said she is encouraged that something is finally happening on this issue now that new voices are in the mix. She noted that after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary the world was in shock, but now the attitude has somehow changed.
“I see this as a human, person, everybody issue,” Weiner said. “Not a Jewish issue, but just something that needs to take place.”
Bundled up in thick coats, scarves, and hats, WRJ Board member Judy Wexler and her sister attended the local march in Chicago in windy 35-degree temperatures. The crowd was filled with children of all ages, leading the majority of the speeches during the rally and chants during the walk.
“They really bring home what guns do in their lives in such a straightforward way,” Wexler said.
Throughout the speeches, each youth representative spoke about how guns are just an everyday reality for them. Children who have lost their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, their entire families to gun violence, were able tell their story in a powerful manner.
Describing herself as becoming a more politically active person, Wexler said she was looking forward to WRJ’s Social Justice Conference in May 2019 to continue to build on people’s enthusiasm and drive.
“We need to educate ourselves in order to educate others,” Wexler said.
Educating those who have an ability to make a change in gun legislation and working to repair the current damage that exists on the ground is how change will come, according to Wexler.
“As Jews, we talk a lot about ‘from generation to generation’,” Wexler said. “But if this continues, we won’t have another generation.”
Decked out in “March For Our Lives” t-shirts, WRJ buttons, and large posters in hand, Celia Saunders and Leah Beth Kolni gathered at Temple Emanu-El for a pre-march worship service in Dallas before loading the four buses rented to bring people to the march downtown.
Saunders and Kolni both serve on the Social Justice Council of their congregation and expressed that political activism and action through advocacy is becoming a trend at all levels in the community.
“No more are the days of being red, blue, or purple,” Saunders said. “We need to be united in everything and in what we want.”
Kolni said the drive of the youth is the reason for this change.
“They are saying ‘we are a voice and we hope that people will listen to us’,” Kolni said. “They are becoming great role models for the future generations to come.”
As Saunders and Kolni arrived at the march, they were surrounded by posters held by adults and children alike:
“I’m not even allowed to bring peanut butter to school.”
“Am I next?”
“Books not bullets.”
Saunders noted that everyone wants our kids to be safe, and Kolni quickly clarified that there are different ways to view this.
“I’m a gun-carrying girl and I am still all for changing the laws,” Saunders said.
In contrast, Kolni said she would feel uncomfortable having a gun, and while she understood the role that guns have in their community, she emphasized that there must be room for change.
She went on to express what she saw as a seamless connection between the efforts of WRJ and the progressive Jewish perspective, noting that it is a Reform Jewish priority to push for change to make our schools and our country safer.
“I think that in the past, sisterhood or WRJ has been seen as the people in the kitchen,” Kolni said. “Performing acts of audacious hospitality is very important, but we are also out of the kitchen, and in more ways than hospitality. I think people are beginning to see that we are not just hosting the oneg. We are seen as participants and not just the people that bring the food.”
Kolni said together WRJ women and youth can lead change by encouraging voter participation and educating voters.
“The three next steps are awareness, education, and voting,” Saunders said. “Everyone working together is what we need.”
WRJ member Alissa Woska’s son attended the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken seminar about a month prior to taking to the streets in protest. During the march, he sought the same gun violence prevention measures that he lobbied his congressmen for during the program.
“The last time I did anything like this was when I was in NFTY,” Woska said.
Woska helped plan and participate in the Glen Cove, NY march to help bring her large community on Long Island together as one around the issue of gun violence.
Woska took to the stage of the rally with her son to express how school safety and action cannot be a political issue.
“As strong as he felt about gun violence prevention, it really came out when he was speaking,” Woska said. “It was the first time that he had something really important to share.”
Following the rally, Woska then joined her husband and children and marched as a family. She wanted to make sure that her kids, and all kids, understood that they were not just offering support, but would protest in the streets with them as well.
“This is an issue happening directly to our children,” Woska said. “They are being told to go to school for a safe place to learn and explore and it’s not always the case. This is where I think parents are failing.”
Woska said she was marching because one of her children came home from school one day and told her that a textbook can be used as a shield to slow down a bullet so it doesn’t kill someone. She became heartbroken that this is what schools needed to teach ever.
“Is Congress actually going to do something?” Woska exclaimed. “Is Congress ignoring the fact that they are scared to go to school? Now enough is enough.”
Among a crowd of over 200,000, WRJ Atlantic District President Annice Benamy was in New York participating in the sister march with her congregation, led by the teens in her group.
Outside of WRJ, Benamy serves as a public-school teacher and she said she needed to show support for school safety by marching.
“I want to be able to tell my students that I was there and made a difference,” Benamy said.
Benamy described the issue of gun violence as something that affects her students every day of their lives. Lockdowns, active shooter drills, and even the death of some of their peers, Benamy’s students, make up these teen’s realities.
The teens are taking the lead on this, Benamy said, because wherever there is gun violence, a child is affected. Teens are doing work where adults haven’t been able to make a difference.
“Adults have been acting like children, so the children need to act like adults,” Benamy said.
Echoes of the National Anthem, “This is what democracy looks like,” and “Vote them out” filled the streets leading up to the office of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) during the sister march in Houston. Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood President Courtney Clark attended the march with two of her four children, trying to serve as a role model that it is their right to have a voice.
“If you are old enough to be shot, you are old enough to have an opinion,” Clark said.
Clark argued that if adults were in danger at their place of employment every day of their lives, others would be more than happy to hear about their concerns. This shouldn’t be different for children in schools.
“It is an American right for every child to get an education,” Clark said. “These are basic gifts that we give to each citizen of this country. But It’s not really a gift when it comes with such great risk.”
Clark said she would continue to march because it was part of her basic values.
“Jewish values command you to participate in these kinds of movements,” Clark said. “It’s hard not to find Jewish values in this march. If Jewish children are our Jewish future, then we must protect our future.”
Estimated at over 800,000 people, Washington D.C. was the central location for the March For Our Lives. The Reform Movement made up almost 4,000 of that number. Teens and adults together as one took to the streets to voice their concerns and rage towards gun violence in what is now history’s largest one-day protest in the nation’s capital.
“This took a movement to make it happen,” Jane Taves, WRJ Vice President for Advocacy, Marketing, and Communications said.
The morning started with a powerful worship service to start this unconventional Shabbat morning, with many WRJ women in attendance along with others in the Movement.
“For some reason, this runs deep into my gut,” Andrea Stillman, WRJ Board member, said.
Stillman expressed that she was like a “waterfall” during the service, with tears streaming down her face because she was so overwhelmed by the leadership of the future generation.
“Some of these students learned to take bullets before they could read,” Stillman said.
The Washington march had many now-famous names in its speaker line up, from Parkland student activist Emma Gonzalez, to 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 11- year-old Naomi Wadler.
“For all of these speakers you could ask how they are so articulate at this age,” Taves said. “It’s because they knew what they wanted to say, and they spoke to the point.”
Both Taves and Stillman expressed that it was their duty as Reform Judaism women to be part of this change. Assisting the nation’s youth in achieving a change in representation, a change in legislation, and a change in value of life, is where Stillman said WRJ can help.
“It’s in our DNA that we think we can make a difference and we get out there and try to be counted,” Taves said. “I think we are in a moment,” Taves continued. “I’m not a crazy optimist that everything is going to change, but I do think it has potential to be a tipping point. And if that’s the case, we all have to step up.”
Starting at the historic Clayborn Temple, the site of the 1968 sanitation strikes, and ending at the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the marchers at the Memphis March For Our Lives walked the same path where others before them tried to bring justice into the country.
Sue Pfeffer, former WRJ Board member, joined the march with her congregation, with the youth leading the delegation. She said she was marching because now enough is truly enough and as a representative of WRJ in her community, she felt an obligation to act on the values of the organization.
“Every night when you turn on the news, you hear about another shooting,” Pfeffer said. “It’s important to put a stop to it.”
Pfeffer described the crowd as a direct representation of the country: varied in age, religion, race, and sexual orientation. She said this showed how this issue truly affects everyone.
“We have reached a boiling point,” Pfeffer said. “It seems like it’s never time to talk about this, but thoughts and prayers are not helping. We must talk, or nothing will get better.”
A pre-march service commenced at 9:30 a.m. at Congregation Kol Emeth in Marietta, GA prior to the sister march in Atlanta. Former WRJ Board member Sharon Zydney found herself being late to the service, but instead found a connection with a complete stranger with a shared goal of change.
As Zydney was on the hunt for Starbucks, she met a woman from Chicago who was visiting the suburbs of Atlanta for a wedding. This woman didn’t know a soul in town, but felt a need to travel to the closest march to be part of the larger movement for change. Although she had no prior knowledge about Reform Judaism, this woman graciously accepted Zydney’s invitation to join her at the service. Completely led by NFTY Southern Tropical Region, teens shared readings, songs and anecdotes, all related to gun violence prevention.
Following the service, this guest expressed to Zydney how impressed she was with the service, saying the worship truly moved her.
“Watching this through someone else’s eyes was just beautiful,” Zydney said. “That made me so proud of our kids, of our Movement, and of what we do.”
The march went through downtown Atlanta and ended at an installation of 14 desks, representing the students lost in Parkland, FL. Titled “Missed Attendants,” marchers were encouraged to write words on the desks to describe their feelings.
Zydney saw phrases like “enough is enough” and “never again” plastered on the sides of the desks with white lettering.
“How do you not say this is ridiculous?” Zydney said. “Our government needs to see this message to support these kids, to support the movement. And we as the grown-ups need to follow their lead.”
Something was missing here.
17 lives, 17 smiles, 17 futures that don’t exist anymore due to the devastating effects of gun violence in the United States.
Madi Hoesten, WRJ Vice President of Affiliate Services, said she couldn’t comprehend what had happened to her community at first because she was walking around in shock. But about a day and a half after the shooting, she felt a change. She had an overwhelming feeling that they were going to make a difference.
Hoesten, along with a large WRJ contingent, gathered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to attend the pre-march rally that would lead into the Parkland march. She said she was marching because she could.
“I’m here, and I’m healthy, and I’m bringing my voice,” Hoesten said. “I couldn’t not march.”
Hoesten reiterated many times that she couldn’t bear the thought of having her own town just seen as another name on a long list. She said the hope of the youth is what drove these marches to happen, and will drive change to occur.
Hoesten’s children are graduates of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and she personally knows people that were shot in the school the day of the incident. Attributing her views to her personal connections to the situation, in addition to her Reform Jewish upbringing, she said we would be failing our future if we didn’t take a stand and repair our broken world.
“As Jews we have a history of determination,” Hoesten said. “We have a belief and optimism to be persistent.”
Needed change will come, Hoesten said, because the youth will not let anything else happen.
“At first when I said I was from Parkland, it was a moment of despair,” Hoesten said. “Then it became a moment of empowerment.”
WRJ members joined marches all across North America because they knew it was their obligation and duty to help their future spread their voices and be heard.
“There were so many groups of teenagers who were there because they wanted to be there, because they chose to be there,” WRJ President Susan C. Bass said. “They were not dragged by their parents or their schools. These are teenagers who felt deeply that they had a role to play. I think that they felt validated and heard.”
Bass said it was important for the youth to have this spotlight because the adults have failed them. Youth have the potential to move the needle where the adults have not. Nevertheless, WRJ will be there helping every step of the way.
“We have a responsibility,” Bass said. “As women, we bear the next generation. We are responsible for care and feeding, and that includes protecting them, and we haven’t done a good enough job.”
According to Bass, WRJ will continue to speak up and speak out to assist in this mission for a safer world. Keeping the pressure on legislators, engaging local communities in the political arena, and protecting those at the forefront of change are what WRJ women will be doing to help this change occur.
“The youth and the women are here, and we are ready,” Bass said.
Alyson Malinger is the advocacy and communications associate for WRJ. You can reach Alyson at firstname.lastname@example.org.