For three of the six years Darcy Schleifstein went to Camp Echo in Burlington, N.Y., she was close with Alex Schachter, a 14-year-old freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Following the Feb. 14 massacre at the school, two other Camp Echo friends at Marjory Stoneman called Darcy to tell her they saw Alex’s body on the ground. He was one of the 17 people shot dead that day.
His tragic death inspired her to become a leader in the movement to halt the spread of gun violence, and one of 19 New Jersey high school students who is organizing a Newark “March for Our Lives,” to coincide with the national rally in Washington, D.C., on March 24. The gathering, which will take place from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at Military Park, will be one of 716 rallies to be held in the U.S. and countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
“Before this I thought people should use common sense around guns,” Darcy said. “But what really propelled me was Alex’s death.”
She and her friends were not yet born when two young gunmen murdered 12 students and one teacher in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. They were pre-teens when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in Connecticut in December 2012. But they are quick to note that many of today’s teenagers will be eligible to vote in November’s midterm elections and most will be voting in the presidential election in 2020.
“These kids are not going to stand for what happened,” Darcy told NJJN. Despite the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s gun lobby, she said, “Yeah, I think we are going to make a difference.”
Olivia Hirsch, another N.J. march organizer who is a sophomore at Columbia High School in Maplewood, demonstrated a similar resolve.
“I think we are going to beat the gun lobby because we have more passion than they do,” she said. “We are a bunch of teenagers who are the incoming leaders, so our motivation and our drive can overpower the NRA. It may own Congress, but we have the hearts of the people.”
A member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in her hometown of South Orange, Olivia said the values she and her peers are fighting for are “very Jewish.”
“The values of putting other people before yourself and looking out for your neighbor are to me what Judaism is all about,” she said.
Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ will be leading a delegation of students and community members to the Newark march. After federation cosponsored a rally last month at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston that called for common-sense gun reform, CEO Dov Ben-Shimon wrote, “There’s no easy answer to solving gun violence, but the enormity of the problem requires us to make every effort. That’s why we had a rally. If we don’t, what happened in Parkland will happen again. So …if there’s any issue that’s truly bipartisan and Jewish, it’s this: saving and protecting the lives of our children.”
Because the rally takes place on a Saturday, federation and its Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life are making arrangements so that Shabbat-observant teenagers will be able to participate without compromising their religious practices.
Federation booked a block of 30 rooms at the Robert Treat Hotel, across the street from Military Park, “so we can have services and kosher meals and the kids will be able to walk to the march,” said Yoni Glatt, director of Federation’s Jewish Teen Educational Experiences Network (JTEEN). He said he expects approximately 35 Shabbat-observant students to attend.
The Partnership is sponsoring a Shabbaton during which teens will delve into Jewish views regarding gun safety. It will be led by Glatt and Partnership Chief Jewish Learning Officer Robert Lichtman. The cost is $36 per person, which covers a hotel room and kosher meals.
“This is not just a teen issue,” Jessica Mehlman, federation’s chief planning officer, told NJJN. “But we are stressing the teen component because this entire movement is being headed by teens and we want to capitalize on that.”
On whether the federation has gotten pushback for its stance, Mehlman said “there has been almost no negative commentary around federation support for commonsense gun legislation.”
Linda Scherzer, director of the Greater MetroWest Community Relations Committee, encouraged all community members — not just teenagers — to participate. “The shootings really touched a nerve in our community, as it has nationwide. It has been a long time since I’ve seen an issue unify our community like this issue of gun reform,” she said.
Samantha Levy, another South Orange sophomore at Columbia High School, also attended Camp Echo and knew Alex Schachter. “It hit close to home,” she said. “It made me realize there had to be change in the world. There are always small things we can do around our neighborhoods that will have a long-term effect.”
When the march is over, Kira Edgar, who lives in Somerville and is a junior at its public high school, said she plans to continue lobbying senators and representatives for increased gun control. “The Newark march will not be the end of this movement,” she told NJJN. “The American people have to unite and stand tall against threats to our safety.”