By GWEN OREL
Senator Bob Menendez always cared about getting good grades. But he is proud to get a lifetime F from the NRA. Menendez said this to a crowd of more than 2,500 people at a rally for gun reform legislation with survivors of the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Just over two weeks ago, a 19-year-old gunman slaughtered 17 people.
The rally, at Temple B’nai Abrahama in Livingston, featured Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seniors David Hogg and Ryan Deitsch, freshman Lauren Hogg, recent graduate Matthew Deitsch, and sophomore Harris Jaffe, speaking about the shooting that left 17 people dead. Federation president Scott Krieger, Rabbi Avi Friedman of Temple OHR-Shalom in Summit, Sen. Menendez, and Brett Sabo, of Moms Demand Action, also spoke.
Linda Scherzer, the community relations committee director for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest of New Jersey, said “We planned this in three days.” The Federation wanted to seize the moment, Scherzer said, and “we knew the Parkland students would be going back to school next week. They’ve really electrified the nation and become real catalysts for change.”.
Robin Kulwin, formerly on the Montclair Board of Education, whose husband Clifford is B’nai Abraham’s rabbi, marveled that none of the students had notes and just spoke from their hearts. She was particularly struck by Rabbi Friedman who discussed the Jewish response. He pointed out that B’nai Abraham has a long involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Former Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988) stood next to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.
‘I WILL BE VOTING’
Ari Westreich, senior class president of Civics & Government Institute and a 17-year-old senior at Montclair High School, said he was “wary of going to events where I hear elected officials give a really manicured speech. A lot of times it seems like they are pandering to
the crowd. But, I knew these people were speaking from their hearts.”
Westreich went to the rally with three friends, driven there by one of their dads. He was struck by how real the Parkland kids were. “I saw kids onstage, some walked across to joke with each other. They look exactly like the friends I was sitting next to,” Westreich said.
On Monday, there was a fire drill, and as he walked outside he thought, “Everyone around me looks like those kids [from Parkland], behaves like those kids. And today I was scared.”
And when one of teen survivors said “stay woke” 17-year-old Montclair senior Joni De Los Santos got a jolt. “That’s a term I use a lot personally when I talk about activism with friends. Seeing him apply that term in a serious way really moved me. That term is supposed to be informal, and used among friends.” It made her realize that the survivors were “really just like me, just like my classmates. All together we can make such a big impact in my nation.”
She’ll be 18 by November, and, she said, “I will be voting.”
Sixteen-year-old Hana Ackelsberg who went to the rally with her mom Betsy Tessler was struck by the students her own age that had been through such a horrific event. “There was one girl there, the youngest one. She was in a classroom and I heard her say that her two best friends died. I just can’t imagine what kind of trauma… sitting in a classroom andwatching your friends die right in front of you. That can’t happen again. I think every teenager in America was affected by this shooting. Parkland was the safest city in Florida. We think Montclair is the safest city in the world. It makes you think it can happen anywhere,” Ackelsberg said.
Tessler said the event sparked activism in her kids. “On the way home, they immediately emailed the superintendent, because they had heard she was concerned about a walkout, and would possibly prevent it from happening. They were sparked to action to say how important it is that students be permitted to do the walkout, and were going to do it with or without the support of the administration, but would rather do it with the support.”
The students got an immediate response that the superintendent does support the walkout in concept, but was concerned with safety.
At one point Tessler wondered whether the youth involved were connecting with the young people working for gun reform in Black Lives Matter, who haven’t gotten the same recognition.
Matthew Deitsch gave a thoughtful response, she said: it’s only been 10 days, she said with a laugh. They are trying to keep up with the organizing.
Seeing the teens speaking, she realized, how unfair life had already been to these students. “These are 17-year-olds and younger. They’re really young. They’re really stepping up in the midst of anguish and grief and trauma. Ten days ago they were just normal high school students studying for AP tests or whatever. It was striking to see that and be reminded that they are kids.”
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, of Montclair’s Bnai Keshet, went with his 15-year-old son Akiva-Lev. “For myself, after so many shootings, it can be easy to become cynical. One of the most profound things about this moment is a sense of hope and potential for change,” he said.
Kulwin believes a change will happen with this next generation.
“I think there’s a sense amongst these young kids that they are the next voting block. They are about to start voting, and they’re realizing that they will be able to make a change. I think people are ready to stand up and say enough is enough.”
When thousands of people show up on a Sunday at 5 on incredibly short notice, “that’s a groundswell, for sure,” said Kulwin.
What about the idea that the survivors are frauds, or “crisis actors?”
“That’s a load of bull,” Ackelsberg said. “I can guarantee you they are not 27-year-old FBI agents. They are being genuine, speaking from their hearts. They may be mature for their age, but you mature after an experience like that.”
For more on Montclairites and activism around Parkland, see this article.
Organizations for gun reform:
Everytown for Gun Safety, everytown.org
Moms Demand Action, momsdemandaction.org