NEW YORK — A text message alerted Zachary Herrmann that an AR-15 wielding gunman had slaughtered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the space of 4 minutes — roughly the amount of time it takes him to change classes.
As part of a generation that has come of age where mass shooting drills are the norm, he recalled thinking: “Not again.”
“I’m old enough to remember [the story of] Columbine. I’m old enough to remember Sandy Hook. I’ve grown up with this. I’ve grown up doing lock-down drills. I’ve grown up when every time I go on a bus my father tells me to be vigilant. I’m always hyper-aware because anything can happen,” said Herrmann, the 19-year-old president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).
Like many across the nation, Herrmann posted his sadness and fury on social media. When he realized “one of our own” was killed — Alyssa Alhadeff spent summers at URJ Camp Coleman — he decided words weren’t enough.
Inspired by the Parkland, Florida, student survivors, Herrmann wanted to mobilize the 8,000-members of NFTY, the Union for Reform Judaism’s youth group. Now he is one of several Jewish youth leaders coordinating a national response to the February 14 shooting.
On March 24, hundreds of thousands of students, parents, and teachers will harness that energy in the March For Our Lives. Demonstrators are expected to converge on Washington, DC, and more than 95 cities across the nation to take part in the student-organized march.
There are also two national walkouts planned, on March 14 to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, and April 20 for the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
After the marches and rallies the youth plan to continue pressuring lawmakers to enact tighter gun control measures, including banning the purchase and sale of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.
The youth have other specific goals, including the closure of the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” This is a gap in the law which allows convicted abusers and stalkers to buy and own firearms as long as they haven’t married, lived with, or had a child with their victims. Additionally, they call for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence.
The normalization of school shootings
The shooting in Parkland was the 12th school shooting this year, according to CNN.
“It’s not unfamiliar and that’s what made me so mad. It’s been normalized. I’ve never known a school environment where a mass shooting wasn’t considered as something that could be imminent. And instead of preventing the problem, people are accepting it. Then I saw Emma Gonzalez and the other kids on TV and I was like ‘Okay, we’re doing this,’” said Kelly Rogers, 18, who is one of the student organizers for March For Our Lives: NYC.
Rogers recalled hiding in a closet for four hours in her native North Carolina elementary school during a lock-down drill. After other school shootings it was parents and other adults who worked for gun control.
“These stories are being told for us, it’s time we took the narrative and talked about what it’s like,” said Rogers.
For the first time since Columbine, two-thirds of American adults now say they believe mass shootings can be prevented, according to a recent CNN poll. That’s a sharp uptick from 2015 when less than 40 percent said mass shootings could be stopped.
“We have the power to do something, we have a vote. We can make our voices heard,” Herrmann said.
Young people have played a key role in virtually every major social movement in US history. During the Civil Rights movement teens faced water hoses and police attack dogs. In 1909, the 23-year-old Clara Lemlich led a strike of 20,000 factory workers in NYC to demand labor laws after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
Even so, there are those calling these student leaders crisis actors, naïve, or too emotional to get involved. Some Parkland students have received death threats.
None of this is dulling their focus. If anything, they are more resolved, said Emily Rosenberg, 18, United Synagogue Youth (USY) international social action/tikun olam vice president.
“We are pushed to make change because we are able to see it. These teens are able to form their own opinions and express them so eloquently and have the means accessible to them to speak out. I feel that now more than ever teenagers are empowered, not only by adults, but by their peers rallying behind them,” said Rosenburg, who attends Rockland Country Day School in Congers, New York.
The Valentine’s Day shooting also impacted some of USY’s 5,000 members, who are either teens at Stoneman Douglas or are friends of students who attend.
A self-described news junkie, Zachary Zabib, 17, is a senior at the Schechter School of Long Island. He’s also the international president of USY. On February 14, his phone started incessantly buzzing with news alerts.
“I was sitting in my guidance counselor’s office. All of us were just horrified,” Zabib said.
That sense of horror fast turned into a sense of purpose.
“I was watching the students from Parkland who were so ready to use their voices and I realized they are literally the same age as me. I became empowered,” Zabib said.
Like NFTY, USY issued a statement of consolation. And like his NFTY counterpart, Zabib had had it with words.
“The politicians always say ‘thoughts and prayers’ after something. That doesn’t get anything done. How many times does it have to happen before we say enough is enough? We made it an immediate priority to get USY involved. The Jewish voice is one of pursuing justice and making a difference,” Zabib said.
The Jewish voice is one of pursuing justice and making a difference
USY is asking teens across North America to march together in their local cities on March 24. It’s also planning a Shabbaton in Washington, DC, the night before the march. There will be USY banners for teens to march behind in NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco.
As tikun olam vice president, Rosenberg spends a lot of time on advocacy and education as it relates to Judaism. For her, March For Our Lives is a chance for teens to literally walk the talk.
“I have always carried ‘It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,’ from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of Our Fathers],” Rosenburg said.
“Personally, as a Jewish teen I know that it is important to not speak for others, but rather speak with and help amplify the voices of those who are affected and laying the important foundation that we support and build upon,” she said.
Likewise the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth, NCSY, which has 25,000 members, issued a statement the week after the shooting: “We are excited for this teen-led initiative, and look forward to participating in a coordinated and collaborative effort with the multiple youth movements and organizations involved.”
Mark Pelavin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s chief program officer, who is helping NFTY with logistics, said he’s never been so optimistic about gun reform.
“The confluence of a horrific — and preventable — massacre, groups of teens who are ready to act, and this being an age when those who are savvy about using social media can make their voices heard across the county, make this moment feel unique,” Pelavin said.
Already they are seeing effects from their efforts, Pelavin said.
Several businesses and stores have cut ties with the NRA. Other stores, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, will no longer sell firearms to customers under 21 and ended its sales of military-style semi-automatic rifles. Dick’s also announced it will no longer sell high-capacity magazines.
Likewise, Walmart will raise the age of buying firearms to 21; it stopped selling AR-15s in 2015. Delta and United airlines both ended corporate discounts to NRA members.
But there are a few stumbling blocks along the way as well. A week after the massacre, Trump met with families and survivors of Parkland and other mass shootings. During the hour-long meeting in the White House he voiced support for raising the age limit to buy an AR-15 from 18 to 21. However, in a tweet the next day he called the leaders of the National Rifle Association, NRA, “great American patriots.”
During last week’s Conservative Political Action Committee confab he said Democrats want to “take away your Second Amendment.”
However, during a February 28 meeting he said he wanted to raise the minimum age to purchase a rifle as well as expand background checks. He also said he didn’t support legislation to allow people with concealed carry permits in one state to keep guns concealed when they cross state lines (legislation which is part of a House bill to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, NICS).
Whether Trump will actually follow through remains to be seen. On March 1, he met with NRA leaders. Afterwards the NRA tweeted: “POTUS and VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control. #NRA #MAGA.” In return Trump tweeted “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!”
Meanwhile, Congress appears poised for inaction on the issue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he would not “micromanage” any gun control legislation and “that we shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens.” He said the House already passed a bill and the ball was in the Senate’s court.
And Rep. Steve Scalise, who was wounded in a 2017 shooting, said there are enough laws on the books already, according to CNN.
None of this deters these teen leaders who said Parkland made them realize they don’t have sit on the sidelines.
“I’m a firm believer in the power of democracy. I don’t see this energy dying out. I don’t think people are going to stop calling their Congressmembers. It’s going to have an effect on the midterm elections,” said Zabib, who will vote come November.
“Seventeen people — many my own age — were killed. We have to step up. That’s what USY is looking to do, to empower our members. I know I have a voice and I can’t not use it,” he said.