A capacity crowd filled the sanctuary pews at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston to hear the urgent pleas of the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida, on Sunday. After being moved to this larger venue due to the anticipated attendance, more doors were opened and more seats set up to accommodate the over 1,200 people who attended the Rally for Common Sense Gun Reform. Twenty at a time were allowed to enter the room, under tight security.
With no introduction, David Hogg, a student from Parkland, took the stage to deafening applause. He recounted the horror of being a student at MSD on February 14, 2018, when an armed gunman stormed the campus, killing 17 innocent students and teachers and severely injuring many others.
Hogg said, “I thought it was a drill…I was headed toward the shooter, following the herd. Someone stopped 100 kids and said, ‘Don’t come this way, he’s coming this way.’ One teacher got 65 kids in her room in seconds and I’m alive because of her.”
He noted that he still thought it was a drill until he started reading online headlines. Hogg conveyed that it was a humbling experience; he thought about his legacy and decided that he wanted to do something impactful. He hoped that the students’ voices would carry on to the halls of Congress. He vowed that the students would not forget, insisting that we need to be an educated democracy and encouraging everyone to get out and vote.
Scott Krieger, president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, one of the sponsors of the event, welcomed everyone and emphasized Federation’s commitment to “supporting common sense gun reform legislation to keep our children, our teachers, our clergy, people who go to concerts and movie theaters, supermarkets and civic centers, all members of our communities and our country, safe.” He acknowledged that “South Florida is a second home for a lot of us in New Jersey. Many have friends whose children and grandchildren were hiding under desks that day or crouched in closets. Tragically,” he went on, “we also have ties to children and teachers who were killed, including Scott Beigel.” He then offered his condolences to the family of the “beloved geography teacher and camp counselor who spent summers with many of our kids at Camp Starlite in Pennsylvania.”
Rabbi Avi Friedman from Temple Ohr Shalom in Summit spoke about gun control through the lens of a Jewish eye and Jewish values. Rabbi Friedman remarked that the rally was taking place at Temple B’nai Abraham, once headed by the spiritual leader and activist Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who addressed the 1963 March on Washington saying, “America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.”
Powerfully, Rabbi Friedman announced that this was the 18th school shooting of 2018. Quoting from Leviticus 19:16, he demanded, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” In praise of the students of MSD, he said that they have seen the blood of their classmates and they are not standing still. “As Jews,” he continued, “we must bring out that no single law is more important than the lives of our children,” adding that he hopes and prays like Rabbi Prinz before him that the time of being silent onlookers is over for our community. Quoting the great sage Hillel, he urged the crowd: “If not now, when?”
To rousing applause as people rose from their seats, Krieger then introduced Senator Bob Menendez, senior senator from New Jersey, whom he called “a strong ally in the fight for responsible gun laws.” In his welcoming remarks, Sen. Menendez said that he was moved by the Parkland survivors, including the Jaffe family, originally from Livingston. He noted that they had turned their mourning into a movement and remarked that next month’s March for Our Lives organizers were in attendance. Sen. Menendez stated that while, once again, everyone is mourning, the students are changing the narrative to a movement of “never again,” not “once again.”
“The young people are driven,” Sen. Menendez pointed out, adding that “we have to join in this passion” as he thanked the students for speaking out.
Krieger praised the student survivors, saying that after the killings at their school, “they turned their grief into anger, and their anger into action.” He noted that when they were invited to speak, “their only questions were ‘where’ and ‘when.’”
Livingston native Harris Jaffe said that the Parkland school does not want to be known as “that school that got shot up.” They want to be known as the last school ever to get shot up. One student after another took to the mic and spoke of the grassroots movement of common sense gun reform, which must be part of the national conversation to become a catalyst for change.
Matthew Deitsch, a 2016 MSD graduate, said that he originally felt helpless but he doesn’t feel helpless any more. Deitsch insisted, “We won’t let them forget Parkland.” His younger brother Ryan Deitsch, a student at MSD, said that he did not want to rip guns out of anyone’s hands, “but, if you are not fit to hold a weapon, you should not have one.” Over 3,000 students at Parkland experienced this tragedy, and they are now traveling the country speaking at rallies. The students urged everyone to join them on March 24 in Washington.
The New Jersey Chapter of Moms Demand Action was in the crowd wearing red shirts. Brett Sabo, state lead, said that the students who demand action are going to do life-changing work, adding, “Your moms have your back.”
Krieger called on all teachers in attendance to stand and be recognized, followed by the show of students in the room, before summing up by thanking the courageous students from Parkland and calling them role models. He said that teenagers today can and will make a difference and that no student should stay silent, but should be a part of peaceful protests, rallies and school walkouts.
The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and Moms Demand Action. Multiple local and national news outlets were on hand to cover the event.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist.