In the wake of last week’s school shooting in Florida that killed 17 students and teachers, a nationwide movement to press for new laws to protect school children is gaining support from surviving students, college students, Jewish youth groups and rabbis, one of whom asked, “If halacha [Jewish law] does not have something to say on this, how can I convince people halacha has any relevance to them?”
“We need to change the laws in America because if we don’t, more of these tragedies will happen, and we never want it to happen again,” Gabe Glassman, 15, a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
Glassman, who hid in a closet for 80 minutes with 70 other students to escape the hail of bullets from a 19-year-old with mental health problems, said lawmakers should “look at themselves and say, ‘We messed up.’ There have been 18 mass shootings in the United States since the beginning of the year. This is a problem that has to be dealt with at the national and state level.”
Four of the 17 killed were Jewish students. One of the teachers killed was also Jewish, Scott Biegel, a geography teacher and cross-country coach who grew up in Dix Hills, L.I., and attended Half Hollow Hills High School West. He is credited with saving students’ lives by opening a classroom door and ushering the students inside before he was fatally shot while closing it. (See story on the Jewish victims on page 21.)
The surviving students are organizing what they call a March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., and in communities across the nation on March 24. It has captured the imagination of other high school and college students and is quickly being embraced by adults. Among them is George Clooney, who told ABC News that he and his family were donating $500,000 to help pay for the event and that they planned to attend and “stand side by side with this incredible generation of young people from all over the country.”
Rabbi Bradd Boxman, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale, said he too planned to attend the Washington march with members of his congregation. He noted that 60 members of his 350-member congregation — including 38 teenagers — planned to travel by bus this week to meet with Florida lawmakers in the state capital of Tallahassee to press for changes to the law.
“In Florida, you have to be 21 to get a gun or to buy a drink, but you can get an assault rifle at 18,” he told The Jewish Week, noting that the confessed gunman used such a weapon. “The members of our congregation will be joined by thousands of others. … The teenagers are going to change things. I’ve never seen kids so eloquent and passionate and determined. We have kids walking out of school — staging walkouts — and saying they will do so until something is changed.”
Similar sentiments were voiced in a Sabbath message to congregants by Rabbi David Steinhardt, senior rabbi of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Fla.
“This is the time for a call to action,” he wrote. “I am angry that this country, supposedly an advanced civilized place, has not been able to pass proper legislation for sane and reasonable gun control. Seventy-nine percent of our citizens oppose the sale of automatic weapons like the one used on Wednesday, and yet our legislators have failed to act. WE ALL KNOW WHY. To a large degree, it is because of the power of the NRA’s congressional lobby. This must be called out again and again. Please check out the amount of money given to our political ‘leaders’ by the National Rifle Association. One of our senators, Marco Rubio, has received over 3.3 million dollars in campaign gifts from the NRA. How will he vote on different aspects of gun legislation? We see his history. Is it a surprise? Emphatically, NO.”
“It’s hypocritical that our president speaks about treating mental illness at the same time that he is cutting the budgets that support mental health in our schools and our communities,” he added. “Enough!”
President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an order directing the Justice Department to ban gun modifications, including bumper stocks that were used in the Las Vegas massacre to convert legal guns into illegal machine guns. In remarks at the White House, the president said also that he would be receptive to universal background checks for all those seeking to buy guns.
“We must do more to protect our children,” he said.
In addition, the president said there must be better physical protection of schools and better coordination between state and federal authorities to take “swift action” when there are warning signs. The FBI conceded last week that it did not follow up on a January phone call warning about the threats being made by the suspected Florida shooter, who had been expelled from the high school.
In the days since the Feb. 14 shooting, synagogues in the area have offered grief counseling to students and school personnel. Rabbi Melissa Zalkin Stollman of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland said more than 600 congregants attended a Shabbat unity service last Friday night at the synagogue, including many non-Jews “who were looking for comfort.”
“We had 17 teenagers light 17 candles in memory of those who were killed,” she said. “It was very emotional.”
Outrage over the shooting was voiced also by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents more than 125 local Jewish community relations councils and 16 national Jewish agencies.
“As our hearts go out to the victims and their families, we call on our legislators to enact commonsense measures that will help combat gun violence,” said Cheryl Fishbein, JCPA Chair.
It called for the closing of “loopholes allowing individuals to buy semi-automatic weapons, and terrorists and criminals to buy guns. … We urge Congress and state legislators to mandate that states report records on criminals, the seriously mentally ill, and other prohibited purchasers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and to require all gun sellers to conduct checks on prospective buyers.”
The JCPA also endorsed the students’ March 24 march and said it is encouraging “Jewish youth organizations and Jewish organizations with youth initiatives to educate and mobilize teens interested in participating.”
The Orthodox Union released a statement calling for federal and state funding programs for school safety and “common-sense measures reduce gun violence — including banning certain sophisticated assault weapons such as the AR-15 used in yesterday’s attack.”
“We will work with elected officials and coalition partners across the political spectrum to advance these policies for the security and welfare of all our children and families.” Orthodox Union Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament said in the statement.
A leading Conservative rabbi is also developing a “broad rabbinic statement that invokes Jewish law” to ban support for any political candidate from any party who would not oppose the sale of assault weapons and background checks on all would-be gun buyers.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, senior rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, told The Jewish Week that he was drafting a rabbinic statement that he believes the Westchester Board of Rabbis will approve and sign on to. It is based on Jewish texts in opposing political candidates of either party unwilling to call for background checks or ban assault weapons.
He said he hoped it would have sufficient appeal that it would “spark interest” across denominational lines both within the Jewish community and among other religious leaders.
“This is a moral issue of public safety and preservation of life, not a partisan issue,” he said. “If halacha does not have something to say on this, how can I convince people halacha has any relevance to them?”
Rabbi Joel Masbacher, whose father was fatally shot in a 1999 robbery, is national co-chair of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and spiritual leader of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan. Rather than pursuing a legislative remedy to stop gun violence, the campaign aims to use the “massive purchasing power of our police and military who buy 40 percent of the guns manufactured in this country to press gun manufacturers” not to do business with the approximately 100 gun stores in the country that are responsible for the sale of 60 percent of all guns used to commit crimes. The rabbi said the group has the support of the mayor of Los Angeles and is still hoping for the support of the mayors of New York and Chicago.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that “until our elected officials stop issuing empty calls for thoughts and prayers and start protecting all Americans, we are left to wonder which community will be the next one added to this dreadful list.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement that the Florida school shooting should not have come as a surprise and that there is “every reason to believe that violence like this would be unleashed again. And again and again until we take meaningful action.”
The president of NFTY — the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, Zachary Herrmann, pointed out in a statement that gun violence prevention is the group’s “long-standing priority” and he called on “all teens to strengthen their commitment to this effort.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said simply: “This is the time for everyone to demonstrate that he or she is committed to the cause. This is the beginning of a real national movement that needs to happen. High school students are disgusted. Twice a day we recite a prayer saying we will diligently teach our children, now we have to add that the children will teach us.”