Gun violence triggers student action

Mirowitz students

During the National School Walkout on March 14, Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School eighth graders Halle Wasserman, Idan Lerner and Ellior Rose hold signs with names of teens killed in the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Rina Gersten heard about how members of United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movement’s Jewish teen group, were planning to travel from around the country to the March for Our Lives, a gathering March 24 in Washington, D.C. aimed at preventing more school shootings.

In early March, Gersten, president of the Congregation B’nai Amoona USY chapter, discussed the possible trip with her board. 

She told them that she would rather attend a local march because she “felt more of a connection to St. Louis.”

The other teens agreed. But the event is scheduled for Saturday morning downtown, which meant that teens who observe Shabbat would have difficulty participating. So they decided to rent hotel rooms at the Drury Inn at Union Station, the starting point for the march, and spend Shabbat there. 

Gersten, who describes herself as shomer Shabbat, had not attended previous Saturday marches for women’s rights and other causes because of the timing, but said she “felt this one applied to every student in school.”

“I thought it was really important that we should all go, and I felt more determined to find a way to get everyone there,” she added.

Jewish communal leaders have since announced the hotel as a gathering place for members of the Jewish community to meet before the march. Organizers from Conservative and Reform synagogues are expecting hundreds of Jews to attend the St. Louis march. (The local march is one of many occurring across the country in conjunction with the main one in Washington.)

While there is not uniformity in the Jewish community in calling for stricter gun control measures, leaders of organizations within the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have spoken positively about teen participation.

“I’m just so excited to see our teenagers engage in this process,” said Rabbi Orrin Krublit of B’nai Amoona, who is accompanying the teens. “It’s the March for Our Lives and it’s being organized by high schoolers because they really feel an existential threat.”

In the wake of the school shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students around the country appear to have responded with greater urgency than following earlier mass school shootings in pushing lawmakers to take action to prevent gun violence. Stoneman Douglas students organized the march in Washington.

And students at local public schools with a significant Jewish student population, like Clayton, Ladue and Parkway Central, have participated in walkouts and organized press conferences to bring attention to the school shootings and call for stricter gun laws.

Eighth grade students at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School were studying gun violence and the Second Amendment in a social studies class and watched a video made by students promoting the National School Walkout on March 14. The students decided they wanted to participate and in class created posters with the 17 Stoneman Douglas victims’ names. Last Wednesday, the students walked out to Ladue Road and stood in silence with the signs for 17 minutes.

Ellior Rose, a Mirowitz eighth-grader, said her class had not learned about gun laws, so they were not aiming to “change things politically; we wanted to do it in memory of the victims who were killed by gun violence.”

“It was very empowering,” said Olivia Riutcel, another Mirowitz eighth-grade student. “It really made me reflect on my values. I was no longer a bystander but someone taking action.”

Students who plan to participate in the march Saturday offered a variety of responses as to what they were hoping to accomplish.

We’re trying to “raise awareness in St. Louis and around the world that this violence needs to stop,” said Gersten, a senior at Parkway Central. She would like to see the government strengthen the system for background checks and make it harder to buy a gun “so that these shootings don’t happen as often.”

She has noticed a stronger police and security presence at her school this year.

“I personally feel safe at my school just because of all the security but it’s definitely something that sits in the back of my mind, like maybe these other schools had all this security and [the shootings] still happened,” said Gersten.

At United Hebrew, teens will speak during services on Friday night and then make signs to carry during the march. The next morning UH members will gather at the congregation and take a bus downtown.

Zoe Rosenberg, a Parkway Central senior who attends UH, said she plans to tell people during services “to listen to the voices of students, to listen to the voices of those who are affected by gun violence every day and do what we can to support them.”

She would like to see changes in gun laws, such as a ban on bump stocks, which enable a semiautomatic rifle to fire faster and stronger laws on sales of semiautomatic weapons. 

Krublit, at B’nai Amoona, and 10 USY teens will arrive at the Drury hotel before the start of Shabbat and hold services and a Torah discussion. The next morning they will be joined by students and families from other Conservative and Reform synagogues. 

While the B’nai Amoona students opted to stay local, students at Congregation Shaare Emeth did decide to make the trip to Washington. Ten students will join with hundreds of Reform Jewish teens from around the country at Washington Hebrew Congregation for Shabbat services Friday night. Then on Saturday morning they will march with thousands of other people along Pennsylvania Avenue.

“When I heard about everything in Parkland, I was incredibly heartbroken,” said Lauren Bayne, 17, the social action vice president of Shaare Emeth’s chapter of National Federation of Temple Youth. “The fact that there hasn’t been anything done about gun violence in decades is really disheartening.” 

She would like to see stricter gun laws to help prevent people with mental illness from acquiring weapons. 

“I hope to bring awareness to all these issues and the fact that there should be more of a push for gun control because with the Parkland shooting, it was a 19-year-old kid who had access to these weapons,” said Bayne, who attends Marquette High School. She believes no one under 21 should be allowed to purchase a gun.

Even if estimates prove true and there is a strong turnout Saturday, Bayne said she “knows that change — especially legislation — will take a long time, but I hope that participating in this march helps increase awareness and speeds up the process.”