As thousands of people geared up to attend the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C., University of Pittsburgh student Kathryn Fleisher was spending her time organizing student leaders at universities across the country.
Fleisher had been working on gun violence prevention through the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform movement’s youth group, for years. When she learned of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff, she began to reach out to her friends from NFTY. When they learned that one of the victims, Alyssa Alhadeff, was also a member of the Reform Jewish community, they decided to do something.
“We lost a member of our community and I think a lot of us wanted to be together to properly mourn her loss,” Fleisher, a first year Pitt student from Cleveland, said. “We treated the weekend as both a call to prayer and a call to action and with the idea that we were coming to pray with our feet.”
Fleisher and other NFTY members helped bring representatives from 50 universities around the country to the nation’s capital, including 11 students from Pittsburgh-area schools. Together with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, they brought a cohort of more than 2,000 members of the Reform movement to participate in the march.
In Pittsburgh, eight families and individuals donated enough funds to the Hillel Jewish University Center to rent a bus to transport the students, according to Hillel JUC director of development Julia Katz.
A few arrived in D.C. early Friday to lobby members of Congress on Capitol Hill before joining the rest of the Pittsburgh cohort at Shabbat services at local congregations. One congregation hosted a survivor of the Parkland shooting, while another hosted representatives from Camp Coleman, the camp that Alhadeff had attended.
“Hearing the stories makes it so real,” Samuel Ressin, a sophomore at Pitt, said of his experience at Hebrew Washington Congregation prior to the march and then joining upward of 800,000 others at the National Mall. “When someone’s on stage saying, ‘My twin brother is dead because of gun violence,’ that’s not something you can just close on your phone. You’re forced to confront that.”
On Saturday morning, the students joined other Reform Jews at a downtown hotel to hold a worship service, hearing from more survivors, reading the Torah and creating their own rally speeches before joining the larger march.
Ressin, like many other march attendees, said one of the most powerful moments of the march was hearing from Parkland student Emma Gonzalez, who has become one of the faces of the movement for gun reform. In her speech, Gonzalez paused for nearly four minutes.
“I remember thinking, what is happening right now? What are we supposed to do?” Ressin said. “You could hear a pin drop in that silence. It was so thick.”
Gonzalez ended her silence telling the crowd that in that length of time, the shooter had fired his weapon, demonstrating how it felt for the students at Stoneman Douglas as the shooter roamed their halls. She concluded her speech with the phrase “fight for your life before it’s someone else’s job.”
For Hannah Daniel, a first year student at Carnegie Mellon University, Gonzalez’s speech was just one of the “breathtaking” and “heartbreaking” moments of the march. She was particularly moved by an 11-year-old named Naomi Wadler, who was representing the African American women who had been affected by gun violence.
“I felt so sad that my generation had failed her so much that she had to grow into this adult and develop this eloquence by the time she was 11,” Daniel said. “Most of the speakers were younger than me. I can’t imagine the pain that they’ve been through and the amount of maturity and poise they have.”
Daniel said the march was “not the end or the climax, it was just the beginning” of their efforts to advocate for preventing gun violence. On Carnegie Mellon’s campus, the URJ is sponsoring a call-in-day on April 10 for students to call legislators and urge them to pass legislation on gun reform. Elsewhere in Pittsburgh, students are working on setting up town halls for the fall semester to hold local and state officials accountable for their stance on gun policy.
Nationally, the Parkland student organizers have turned their attention to encouraging people to vote in the midterm elections.
“I really do believe in, ‘justice, justice you shall pursue.’ It’s literally hanging above my bed where I sleep every night,” said Fleisher. “If I don’t take personal responsibility for what is wrong with the world, then I don’t expect anyone else to also.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.