A contingent of students, parents and teachers from Parkland, Florida, came to Pittsburgh last weekend to share what they had learned in the wake of a mass shooting there, including the perspective that communities, and the people who make up those communities, become stronger when they stand together.
“You know how one single pencil is very breakable, but if you grab a bunch of colored pencils it’s unstoppable?” queried Daniel Tabares, a sophomore at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman murdered 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018. “It’s the same thing this weekend. One community is really not that powerful, but when you combine a bunch of communities, like Pittsburgh and Parkland, they will be so inspirational together, they will be so united. They will speak, and the world will hear them.”
The visit from Parkland survivors was initiated by Samantha Novick, a Stoneman Douglas alumna, whose husband, Jason, is the grandson of the late Ivan Novick of Pittsburgh. Parkland teachers had reached out to Novick when they learned of her family’s connection to Pittsburgh, and said, “We want to go; we want to help,” Novick said.
Through “various connections,” Novick got in touch with Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, to make that happen.
“It was very helpful to our community when people had come in and supported us,” Novick recalled. “We had people from Sandy Hook and people from Columbine come and help us and guide us and give us advice and just be there with us. We wanted to bring that here to the Pittsburgh community.”
The Parkland visitors had a busy three days in Pittsburgh, meeting with students at Taylor Allderdice High School on Friday to discuss advocacy for gun reform; participating in J-Serve along with 325 teens from Pittsburgh on Sunday; and attending a Pirates game with local teens and community members on Saturday. They also met with Mayor Bill Peduto and visited the grounds of the Tree of Life synagogue building along with survivors of the Oct. 27 massacre.
The visit was organized by the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement of the Jewish Community Center, which is headed by Symons, and was funded by the JCC and others.
“We’ve done really well at the JCC at the Center for Loving Kindness of being able to redefine neighbor as a geographic term when it comes to Hazelwood and East Liberty and Homestead and Homewood and the Hill and Squirrel Hill,” Symons said. “But now this weekend proves that even a thousand miles away, neighbor is not geographic, neighbor is a moral concept.”
It is important to keep in mind, Symons explained, that while “what happened on Oct. 27 was an act of anti-Semitism — period — anti-Semitism is a symptom of a larger hatred that exists not just for the Jewish community, but for lots of marginalized peoples. And that if we were just to focus on Oct. 27, we would be doing a disservice to our neighbors. We know that at least once every 10 days, a young black man in Pittsburgh dies by gun violence. Now the question is, how do we respond? What do we do? How do we engage? How do we have compassion for our Latino brothers and sisters, our Latino neighbors when they live in fear?
“We all need to be gathering together,” Symons continued. “We need to be holding each other close, we need to be working for those of us who know what it means to be marginalized.”
The Parkland visitors and several Pittsburgh community members — including Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash — gathered beneath a tent outside the Tree of Life synagogue building on Friday morning, sharing words of comfort and inspiration with each other.
“Even though a terrible shooting happened, and terrible things happened here, so many wonderful things happened,” said Parkland teacher Ivy Schamis, who was teaching a Holocaust class at Stoneman Douglas when a gunman entered her room and murdered two of her students. “I hope that you, just like me, hold onto the fantastic and amazing memories — and not forget, of course, what happened there, but hold onto all the good things.”
For New Light member Barry Werber, who was in the Tree of Life synagogue building on Oct. 27, the visit from the Parkland representatives was profound, despite the challenge he felt being at the site of the massacre.
“I haven’t been this close to the building since Oct. 27,” Werber said. “It feels eerie to see the fence around the entrance where I usually went in. It’s weird.”
While Werber has been touched by the outpouring of compassion coming from so many in the wake of the attack, he was particularly moved by the Parkland visit.
“To have Parkland come in after all they’ve been through, especially the suicides in the last couple weeks, I’m speechless,” Werber said. “The emotional trauma we have been through has made us relatives in more ways than one.”
On Sunday, the five Parkland students gathered with hundreds of Pittsburgh teens to participate in J-Serve, the International Day of Jewish Youth Service, held in Pittsburgh each spring, and led by the JCC, BBYO, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Volunteer Center and Repair the World. Throughout the day, students volunteered with more than 15 different service organizations, including 412 Food Rescue, Family House and Animal Friends.
In addition to traditional direct service projects, teens also had the option of participating in one of two advocacy workshops: one on gun violence, led by teens from Pittsburgh and Parkland, and one on immigrants and refugees, led by Pittsburgh teens and community members, according to Hannah Kalson, director of Teen Engagement and Experiences at the JCC.
Pittsburgh and Parkland teens had been working together remotely for weeks to organize the events, and inspiring each other to work toward positive change in the world.
“One of our goals is to really just find hope through support and community because these times have been so hard, and it is just something so tragic that brought our cities together,” said Pittsburgh teen Andrea Holber, who is on the J-Serve steering committee. “But instead of focusing on that, we’re trying to focus on the bigger picture and how to make change afterward.”
Rebecca Glickman — one of the teens who organized a community vigil in Squirrel Hill the night of the Oct. 27 massacre, and who also serves on the J-Serve steering committee — hopes that the relationships forged between the teens from the two cities will continue, so they can “advocate for gun reform and become leaders together and continue our coalition.”
Glickman said she felt “empowered” being with the Parkland visitors, “because we heard a lot of their stories and the stories of teachers and parents who lost their children. It was hard, but the fact that they’re here and they’re happy and they are living life and advocating is very inspiring.”
The Parkland teens were inspired by Pittsburgh as well.
“It’s healing to know there is someone out there that went through the same thing we did, but also heartbreaking to know there are more people out there,” said Lizzie Eaton, a senior at Stoneman Douglas. “That’s why we continue to do this, so we can make sure that no one else has to go through that pain, because it is really traumatic on your life. That’s why we’re here.”
For Carlitos Rodriguez, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, it is imperative to share a message of love in times of heartbreak.
“We are just doing what we think is best for our country and the world and for other people, and we are trying to transmit a message of love and care for one another, in unity, to this community that was impacted five months ago,” Rodriguez said. “Our community was impacted 14 months ago, and it is such a big way for us to reflect on how we healed as a community five months in, and seeing how this community has brought together two populations to bring a message of love and that we are stronger than hate.”
It has been “a rough 14 months,” said Stoneman Douglas junior Adam Habona. “We’ve all been really ignited by this tragedy. And we are united to do the same thing, to reach the same equilibrium. So, we’re trying to stop letting this happen over and over again. It’s been really keeping us together, keeping us as one, and uniting us.”
The Parkland teens have been bringing hope to a traumatized world, according to Stoneman Douglas senior Alyssa Fletcher.
“I have been told that the youth have given hope to everyone no matter what age they are,” Fletcher said. “And I think that by restoring that hope, it is encouraging other people to now speak out, and empowering them to vote, and that’s our purpose — to keep that momentum going into the future and to impact our future generations.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at