As students around the country took part in nationally organized walkouts sparked by last month’s murder of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school, more than 50 young adults at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill headed outdoors last Wednesday to offer voice, silence and solidarity with those seeking legislative attention on gun reform.
“Good morning and thank you all for being here. Being out here as a community sends a strong message to our elected officials that mass shootings are not right,” eighth-grader Talia Rosen told students, staff, parents and friends who gathered outside the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture on CDS’ campus.
“We have all walked out here today to show our politicians what it really means to take action,” echoed fellow eighth-grader Ada Perlman, who along with Rosen organized the local student walkout.
Attendees were encouraged to take a moment of silence to “commemorate all the victims that have been lost in such horrifying gun massacres,” explained Perlman.
“Your voices are being heard at city government,” said the Democrat. “This shows you care. It shows that all lives matter. Not a lot of schools are doing what you’re doing.”
While students from schools nationwide participated in the walkout, CDS was the lone Pittsburgh Jewish day school to offer an organized activity.
Although similar action did not occur at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, Principal Rabbi Sam Weinberg explained that “students process tragedies in different ways, and when a horrific tragedy like the one in Parkland occurs it is important for our entire staff to be on the lookout for any grieving or distressed students. We are always there to listen and help our students in all aspects of their lives.”
Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh did not return requests for comment.
“Kids across the country are being heard in ways that adults haven’t been,” she explained. “It’s inspirational. It feels like we built these problems, and hopefully they’ll fix them.”
Apart from offering prepared remarks, the eighth-grade organizers led the group in song. The biblical verse from Exodus 15:2, Ozi v’zimrat Yah vay’hi li lishuah, “The Lord is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation,” was repeatedly chanted, as well as Matisyahu’s “One Day.”
Throughout the demonstration, students held signs proclaiming various messages. One poster had the words “thoughts and prayers” crossed out and replaced with “policy and change.” Other signs read, “Our thoughts and prayers happen during shacharit, not when it’s too late,” “It could have been me,” and “I feel lucky to go to school…not to come home alive.”
The signs were made during recess and lunch hours, explained Munro, who added, “We believe that education has to connect with real-world problems and that students must learn that they have a voice and the power to take action.”
The phrase had been adopted by Never Again MSD, which uses the hashtag #NeverAgain, a group organized by student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland.
While “never Again” is the Jewish Defense League’s motto and has been the call to remember the Shoah’s atrocities, employing the term is not problematic, said Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“For decades the phrase ‘Never Again’ has been associated with Holocaust remembrance, where it is imbued with optimism,” she said. “It is part of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s mission to empower students. It is in the spirit of optimism and not appropriation that the students have adopted the phrase ‘Never Again.’”
At CDS, once the singing was complete and additional remarks were made, including those sent from Harrisburg by state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-District 23), the students solemnly marched back toward the building.
Although the majority of middle schoolers participated in the walkout, several had opted to remain inside where rooms were designated for writing condolence cards, attending a study hall or engaging in Jewish texts and reflection.
“Five students chose to participate in the other activities,” said Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and communications at CDS.
Offering students a variety of options made sense, explained Munro. “We have a diverse community and not everybody is comfortable with these expressions, so that’s why we planned for alternatives.”
“It’s the latest fallout from the controversy involving Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory, who attended a virulently anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ speech by…Farrakhan last month, and the Women’s March leaders who didn’t apologize for her actions in a subsequent statement,” reported the Israeli newspaper.
“The connection with the Women’s March did not come up during the speeches that morning or in any communications from the students about their intentions to walk out,” said Bails.
“Our hope is that we are empowering our students with the knowledge, critical thinking skills, discernment, and Jewish values to make nuanced decisions wherever complex issues intersect and can’t be neatly identified with one extreme or another,” said Munro.
For the eighth-grade organizers, the message was much simpler.
“I think it’s really important for students to feel safe when we go to school,” said Perlman.
Added Rosen, “It’s sad we had to have this in the first place.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.