In 2018, a record level of school gun violence and a synagogue shooting that killed 11 people made many Jewish teens more aware of the dangers facing schools and houses of worship.
A study by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School reported 97 school gun violence incidents in the U.S. in 2018, which is 61 percent higher than the previous record from 2006 of 59 incidents. The mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue during Shabbat services Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
So, what are teens doing within their communities to combat the fear of an attack at their own school or synagogue?
For Sarah Louis, a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., fear was everything on Feb. 14, 2018. That day, a gunman entered the building and killed 14 of her fellow students as well as three staff members.
“I never thought anything that horrifying could happen to me,” Louis said.
Since then, Louis has become a gun control advocate, making appearances at both the “March on Washington” last March and the CNN town hall meeting last February with Florida’s U.S. senators as well as their congressman and an NRA spokesperson.
“I feel that as a community our voices are being heard,” Louis said. “However, the precautions needed to make the world, especially schools, safer have still not been put into place. I think [advocating is] important because it’s the only way to get the word out.”
Advocating hasn’t just been limited to the students of Parkland. Across St. Louis, many students have become involved in the national movement for gun control because many feel a greater need for safety in their own schools. One local high school student, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation by school administrators, became an advocate for Students Demand Action, a teen-led campaign for gun control reform.
“After Parkland, I was one of the students who organized a walkout at our school,” the student said. “After that, the administration over the summer came up with new rules, so now more of the doors are locked.”
The student said she generally feels safe at her synagogue because of its well-regulated security. However, after news of shootings spread, she occasionally feels on edge at the thought of a repeated event in her own temple.
“It’s sometimes really distracting when I’m trying to… pray, enjoy and be with my family. I’m also looking out the window because I hear about the Pittsburgh shooting on the news, and I’m really worried that it might happen [to me],” the student said. “My parents had us start sitting close to the exits in the synagogue, just in case anything would ever happen.”
For many students, walking into their school or synagogue is not a source of terror on a daily basis. However, the spike in shootings has also led students to realize that the places that they’ve always considered secure can be targeted
“[The Pittsburgh Massacre] affected me differently because I always thought of my temple, Shaare Emeth, as a place where a shooting would never happen,” said Steven Solomon, a sophomore at Parkway Central High School. “We do all those trainings at Camp Emeth, and I always say, ‘This is never going to really happen here, it’s a safe place’ but then after the Pittsburgh [shooting] it made me realize that shootings can happen anywhere, not just at schools.”
Nevertheless, Solomon believes that learning from these tragedies is the best way to move on, and to honor the victims of previous shooting so that their experiences don’t have to be repeated in others.
“I think we can move on if we learn from them [the tragedies] and we don’t just keep doing the same things over and over again,” Solomon said. “And we learn what went right and what went wrong. We can mourn from it, but then we can take the things that we did wrong and fix them in other places.”