After the murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 at the hands of a 19-year-old gunman, something seemed to change. While all eyes were on the Sunshine State and the possibility of federal gun legislation, a youth movement was brewing. It started with angry students rallying in Florida and spread across the country, spurring organization of school walkouts and protests. In Baltimore, young people have been galvanized.
Pikesville High School senior Josie Shaffer, 18, felt she had to do something after seeing the Parkland carnage.
“After the shooting and seeing all these students from Parkland speaking up and using their voice, it was inspiring to see them taking a stand like that,” Shaffer said. “I felt so helpless because I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do where I was in Baltimore compared to what they were doing in Florida.”
Shaffer, who is the student member on the Board of Baltimore County Public Schools, wrote a letter to the board that she read aloud at a meeting. In it, she detailed her fears about the future and her plans to join the student-led March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24.
“This is not a partisan issue. This is an ‘I’m scared to go to a place that I thought was safe’ issue,” Shaffer
wrote. “I should not be afraid to go to school. My friend should not be stopped as she’s about to leave the house because her mom wants her to change into tennis shoes in case she has to run. Parents should not worry they will never see their children again after putting them on the bus.
“As students, we have the right to get our education without constantly fearing someone with an assault rifle will enter the building. Something has to change.”
Shaffer is not alone in her efforts. Whether it’s fellow high school students, adults or organizations in Baltimore, few are staying silent about the issues surrounding guns in America.
A week after the events at Parkland, 18-year-old Pikesville High student Morgan Hoffman heard rumblings on social media about student walkouts taking place across the country on March 14. Hoffman, along with a group of friends, decided that something similar needed to happen at Pikesville High.
“Our plan is to get as many students as we can to walk out, because we want to send a message along with the thousands of other students around the country that our generation is here, we’re passionate and we’re not going away,” Hoffman said. “Overwhelmingly, we’ve heard positive feedback from students who are passionate about this issue and want to walk out. A bunch of teachers and administrators have expressed that they want to walk out with us.”
At nearby Franklin High School in Reisterstown, 17-year-old junior Naomi Yankellow organized her school’s walkout.
“[The walkout] shows that we’re not just Generation Z,” Yankellow said, “that we’re not people who aren’t interested in anything political. We’re showing older community members that hey, we’re here, we have a voice and we’re going to participate. We’re going to knock down all the walls that you’re going to put up.” Franklin also supports students taking part in the walkout.
When asked if the youth are the ones leading the movement for gun reform, Hoffman said, “100 percent.”
“I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that my generation is going to be the generation to flip this dialogue and end mass shootings,” Hoffman said. “We’ve grown up with them one after the other, and we’ve seen absolutely no legislation getting put into action. Enough is enough. I think my generation as a whole is fed up, and it’s up to us to take it into our own hands.”
Hoffman, Shaffer and Yankellow all say that the teachings of Judaism have informed their activism on this topic.
“I think Judaism is such a nice culture of people supporting and elevating each other,” Shaffer said. “Learning some of that through my family and all the traditions we do has really shown me that progress is through community.”
Hoffman subscribes to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam.
“It’s the notion that no matter your situation or age, you should always be doing your part to make the world a better place,” Hoffman said.
Synagogues Get Involved
Rabbi Bradd Boxman, formerly of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, is now the rabbi at Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Parkland less than two miles from where the shooting took place. The synagogue became a community refuge in the wake of the shooting, offering counseling to students and their families. When the JT spoke to Boxman two weeks after the incident, the rabbi called the recovery period “an emotional work in progress.”
“This is a bomb that went off in the center of our little town, and the repercussions are still felt widely, but most intensely right here,” Boxman said. “We’re still dealing with therapy and grieving parents and the PTSD of going back to school.”
The Kol Tikvah community quickly sent a delegation of students and adults to the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee to speak with legislators.
“We participated in the largest rally they ever had in Tallahassee for any event that anyone remembers,” Boxman said. “We spoke with Republicans, Democrats. Some of the Republicans closed the doors in our faces and hid. There were some that did have the courage to stand and tell us what they thought, even if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear.”
During a move of civil disobedience, the Kol Tikvah group walked into the gallery during a legislative session to speak with Florida Rep. Ross Spano.
Boxman told the legislators: “These children just traveled 400 miles and didn’t arrive till midnight. They’re here to tell about the slaughter that they just saw. You have an obligation to hear these children.”
“Two of the [teens] got up and spoke, one who was an eyewitness to the slaughter,” Boxman said. “Another one got up, spoke and asked, ‘What are you going to do now?’ People came out afterward and told us that all their years in the capitol, they never saw something like that.”
Locally, Baltimore-area synagogues are getting involved by chartering buses down to Washington on March 24 for the student rally. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (along with Oheb Shalom, Bolton Street Synagogue and Har Sinai) have two buses with 112 seats that are filling up fast, according to BHC Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. The rabbi credits the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) for inspiring the Reform congregations to act.
“I’m very excited about the energy that I see around this and I hope that our legislators will see this as a groundswell,” Sachs-Kohen said. “Politicians seem to be stuck, and I hope this allows them to have the courage to get unstuck. I think the youth are driving it. The adults have been talking about it for a long time and now that the teenagers are getting involved, I hope that much as we saw in the ’60s when the youth really stepped into the spotlight, that we adults will finally find our courage and listen.”
Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah says his congregation plans to join the march, too. Baltimorean Ruth Goldstein, who helped organize buses for the Women’s March last year, is organizaing three buses to Washington as well.
“This huge coalition is going to show up to support the kids from Parkland,” Goldstein said. “I’ve already heard from other people who are organizing buses that it’s a completely grassroots response, just like the Women’s March.”
‘It’s Our Duty to Protect Ourselves’
But with all this activism, much of which centers on advocating for gun control, many firearms owners and Second Amendment activists are fearful of potential laws that they believe could limit their personal freedoms.
Shmuel Frankel, the president of the Givati Rifle & Pistol Club of Pikesville, said he wants to dispel the notion that gun owners “don’t care.”
“I care very deeply that people were hurt, injured and killed in these mass shootings and it really bothers me,” said the 30-year-old Frankel. “But then again … from a selfish standpoint, I don’t see how further restricting my rights would have any effect on those mass shootings.”
Frankel believes that people on both sides should engage with each other.
“I think we have a lot of common ground on laws that could help sort of make these things less common,” Frankel said. “The problem is that the Second Amendment people, on the pro-gun side of things, just don’t trust any of the politicians. I don’t trust any of the liberal politicians … and I think most gun owners agree with me that liberal politicians don’t want to enact gun control, they want to enact gun elimination.”
Alan Korwin, the newsletter editor of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, is also the owner of Bloomfield Press, the largest publisher of gun-law books in America. Korwin believes that Judaism teaches its followers “to protect the gift of life that God has given us.”
“God doesn’t want us to squander our lives, and we need to stay alive for ourselves and for the benefit of our family and our community,” Korwin said. “If someone is trying to take our life unjustly, it’s our duty to protect ourselves. … My rule of thumb is if [a law] increases your freedom, then it’s probably a good law. If it decreases your freedom, then it might not be. If the law will take away property you legitimately own now, then that’s probably suspect.”
When the topic of assault rifles was raised during his interview with the JT, Korwin said, “Assault is a kind of behavior. It’s not a kind of hardware.”
“An assault weapon is a term that the political left has invented to vilify legitimate firearms that millions of Americans own and use and enjoy and there’s nothing wrong with them,” Korwin added. “Sport utility rifles, the most popular rifle used in America today — the left has given what they consider an ugly name and then they say, ‘We have to take those away from you. We have to decrease your freedom in order for us to feel safe.’”
Korwin acknowledged that the recent violence is a problem.
But, he said, “If you look at them as ‘shootings,’ you’re being deceived or misled. There’s 100 million gun owners in America and they’re all shooters. The problem is murders. If you had a more clear impression of it, the dialogue and debate would change dramatically.”
He blamed such incidents on violence in popular culture.
“Where do you even get the idea that you can walk into a room and start shooting people? You see it in movies and TV if you flip through the channels,” he said. “These violent portrayals have an effect. They have to keep upping the violence to keep kids engaged. When someone goes crazy and commits a mass murder, there’s a reason. Everyone in the media goes, ‘Oh my God, the NRA,’ and nobody goes, ‘The movies are having an effect.’”
Not Backing Down
While the debate rages on, nothing has taken shape yet in the form of legislation in Congress. (In Maryland, the state ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines was upheld by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last year.) But Jewish activists are in this fight for the long haul. Shaffer wants to see a less partisan conversation take place on the national level.
“It becomes so politicized, but it really shouldn’t matter what’s on your voter I.D.,” the Pikesville High senior said. “People don’t even need to agree with you to talk about why this is a problem and why we need it to stop.”
For his part, Boxman said this type of activism is actually consistent with Torah.
“There’s Torah that’s written and Torah that’s written with our actions,” the Parkland rabbi said. “One of the things we’re supposed to do is act against injustice and act to save lives. In this case, both those things are relevant. It’s a mitzvah to save lives. I believe these 17 lives that we lost, the only way to keep their deaths from being in vain is to try and save as many future lives as we possibly can.”
Reporter Susan Ingram contributed to this report.