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On February 14th, tragedy once again struck our country when a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Members of our Reform Jewish community live in Parkland and were in the school at the time of the shooting. Some were injured, and Alyssa Alhadeff, a camper at URJ Camp Coleman, was killed. Once again, a place of learning and growth in this country was shattered with gunshots.
Tragically, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have witnessed more than their fair share of gun violence in our country over the last few years, even before February 14, 2018.
These teens recognized what was happening, and identified the pattern that would begin to emerge: the event would be followed by a period of mourning and media attention, then a brief debate about gun laws, and then, in the blink of an eye, the world will have moved on. However, the students in Parkland were prepared and knew that they were in the unique position to break the mold. Bravely, they began raising their voices through walkouts, town halls, and lobbying their representatives to make meaningful change to prevent future acts of gun violence. They were ready to lead our country and continue to do so.
But this moment is so incredibly different than five years ago.
We were serving on NFTY board on December 14, 2012, when a gunman killed 26 students and teachers, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As the news was still unfolding, we hurried to provide comfort and condolences to our NFTY and Reform Jewish community, as well as the broader Newtown community as best we could.
The five of us, along with the rest of the nation, were stunned, shocked, and profoundly saddened by this horrific shooting. In our lifetimes, we had never had to grapple with a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook. Every meeting to decide a course of action was met with grief and confusion filling long stretches of silence. This was before Moms Demand Action, and before Everytown for Gun Safety. We had so much more to learn about the role of guns and gun legislation in our country. We had even more to learn about the ways we could be influential on the matter as teens, as Reform Jewish leaders, and as an entire movement.
Over the next few months, we learned about all the ways that NFTY had taken bold stands in the past: marching on Washington with Dr. King, boycotting unjust companies, fighting for LGBTQ equality, and standing with Soviet Jews. We struggled with our own inaction after Newtown and how could we mobilize our movement to prevent gun violence. It was thoughts like these that became the driving force behind our remaining few months on NFTY Board.
Our response came on June 22, 2013, at NFTY Mechina at the URJ Kutz Camp, where we led 140 NFTY regional leaders in our last NFTY program. Winding through a series of rooms, these leaders saw the impact of NFTY’s advocacy and action throughout its history, and also challenged them to prepare for future movements to change their communities and the world.
At the end of the program, standing in front all of these NFTY regional leaders, we spoke about our regrets from this last year and our dreams for the future of NFTY, each ending by saying, “but my time is done”. After we spoke, we prompted the group in unison, “What can we do now?”
Suddenly, the lights turned off, and the messages on our white T-shirts glowed back at these NFTY regional leaders:
Without saying another word, the five of us took our exit. We closed the door behind us, leaving these emerging NFTY leaders alone, in the dark, with only their thoughts. We could only hope that they took them to heart, and hit the ground running to rebuild an engaged and active NFTY.
Now, an entire generation of NFTYites later, we are facing the same struggle, the same anger and the same despair that we did in 2012. However, NFTY is ready now. Over the last five years, NFTY has educated thousands of Reform Jewish teens about the impact of gun violence in our communities and the policies it will take to end it. Since the tragic event in Parkland, FL, Reform Jewish teens have been on the front lines of challenging lawmakers in Tallahassee, speaking powerfully about their experiences, and calling the Reform Movement and the country to wake up and pay attention.
NFTY, we’re so proud of the work you’ve done and the work you will do to prevent gun violence. We couldn’t mobilize five years ago; we were bystanders then. But we’re with you now. We can’t wait to see the world that you build.
Learn more about how NFTY is mobilizing for gun violence prevention, then sign up at NFTY Fights for Gun Violence Prevention to participate in these efforts. You can also visit www.rac.org/gvp for tangible ways to take action to prevent gun violence.
The authors of this piece comprised the NFTY Board 2012-2013: Evan Traylor, NFTY President; Jordan Rodnizki, NFTY Programming Vice President; Joy Nemerson, NFTY Social Action Vice President; Jacob Georginow, NFTY Religious & Cultural Vice President; and Marlee Ribnick, NFTY Membership & Communications Vice President.