Less than two weeks ago, Harris T. Jaffe spent two-and-a-half hours hiding in a closet during the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., wondering if the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, would find him. On Sunday, the 16-year-old was behind a podium at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, calling for legislative action and telling more than 2,300 people his story of survival in a massacre that left 17 of his classmates and teachers dead.
“We don’t want to be known as the last place that got shot up,” Jaffe said. “We want to be known as the last school that ever got shot up.”
Jaffe, who was born in Livingston before his family moved to Florida, was one of five students from Parkland who traveled to New Jersey to speak at a rally on Feb. 25 in support of common-sense gun legislation. The rally, organized by the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and also sponsored by Moms Demand Action, was originally scheduled to be held at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange, but was moved due to the size of the expected crowd. The synagogue was filled to capacity and some prospective attendees were turned away.
With an aunt, uncle, and 15-year-old cousin, members of Temple B’nai Abraham, in the audience wearing #ParklandStrong T-shirts he gifted them, Jaffe described the terrifying scene before closing with a poignant request to his peers:
“To all you high schoolers out there: Say, ‘I love you’ to your parents. Say ‘Thank you for all you did,’” he said. “You don’t know when anything’s going to happen.”
Emily Chaleff, 18, of Livingston is flanked by Temple B’nai Jeshurun clergy, including Assistant Cantor Lucy Fishbein, at left, and Associate Rabbi Karen Perolman. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Besides the five Parkland students, speakers also included Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), members of the Jewish community, and a representative from Moms Demand Action. All expressed admiration for the students’ ability to turn mourning into action.
Throughout the rally, audience members held up various signs from “Keep our kids safe” to “Bullets aren’t school supplies” to “Arms are for Hugging: No one needs an AR-15.”
“The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have seen the blood of their classmates and friends, and they are not standing still,” said Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit JCC, a reference to verse 9:16 in Leviticus, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Friedman also suggested that the words of Talmudic rabbis are relevant to the current debate about gun reform. “They understood that the whole point of a legal system is to enable its adherents to live according to the laws, and not die because of them,” said Friedman, to loud applause. “As Jews, we must bring this principle to the American conversation about guns.”
A number of students in attendance were considering attending the March 24 “March for Our Lives” national rally in Washington, D.C., a student-led demonstration against mass shootings. Menendez acknowledged a cadre of students in the audience who are among the organizers.
Menendez said he wasn’t surprised that the Jewish community was responsible for organizing the February rally, “given the Jewish community’s commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world.” The senator, who held in his hand the “Assault Weapons Ban of 2017” bill he and several of his Democratic colleagues had introduced in November, spent most of his time on stage focusing on three policies that he said will be crucial to move gun reform forward: banning the sale of high-capacity magazines, reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons, and opposing the NRA-sponsored “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017,” which has already passed in the House and would allow concealed carry permits in one state to be used in others. The crowd murmured loudly when Menendez took on President Donald Trump’s recent suggestion to arm school teachers, even offering bonuses to those adept at using firearms.
“I haven’t met many teachers who want to be the ones charged with assessing the threat, firing the gun, and taking a life in front of their own students,” he said.
Despite the senator’s words and a crowd that was overwhelmingly in favor of increased gun control regulations, some felt that the real problem is the failure to properly address mental health issues. “I believe some people are taking gun laws out of proportion,” Justin Shupack, 14, of Montville told NJJN before the rally. “They think you should ban assault weapons just because of one shooting and people think the gun is the problem. It’s actually the person. It’s a mental illness problem.”
Despite the nightmare he lived through, one Parkland survivor, Ryan Deitsch, expressed his support for the rights of gun owners with the proper training and permits. “But if you are not fit to hold that weapon, you should not have one,” he said. “If you disagree with me, if you believe you do not want a single regulation on guns, I would just like to take a seat and talk this out with you.”
Ryan Deitsch, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., shooting. Photo by Jerry Siskind
Deitsch was emotional as he described the frustrating trip he and some of his fellow survivors took to Tallahassee, Fla., hoping to meet with several legislators over the course of a day. “I met with three,” he said. “Representative after representative refused to meet with us.” He described the anger he felt as he sat in Florida’s House of Representatives and watched state legislators saying, “In God we trust.”
“I don’t know what God I can trust that will allow this to happen time and time again.”
His brother, Matt Deitsch, a 2016 graduate, happened to be back in Parkland on the day of the shooting to celebrate their sister’s 15th birthday. (She, like her brothers, was unhurt, although Ryan pointed out that “she’ll never have a normal birthday.”) He said that at the time of the shooting he felt helpless. But now that he’s become an advocate for gun control, “I don’t feel helpless anymore.”
David Hogg, the 17-year-old Parkland student journalist, said that it was while sitting in a closet that he had a sudden insight: He didn’t want to be “like any other background character” in history.
“Humanity only has a few select hundred people that they choose to remember,” he said. “Coming to terms with that was something I didn’t want to do, because throughout my entire life I wanted to change the world.” That epiphany spurred him to report on the shooting as it unfolded.
In the tragic aftermath, Hogg has emerged as a symbol of the lengths gun advocates will go to discredit the opposition after falsely claiming that the teen is “a crisis actor,” paid to travel to recent mass shootings and speak as a victim to promote gun control legislation.
At least half a dozen synagogue clergy attended the rally. Others in attendance included Jared Maples, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness; Patrick J. Callahan, colonel of the N.J. State Police; Jennifer Davenport, N.J.’s first assistant attorney general; State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet; and Essex County officials including Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Sheriff Armando B. Fontoura, and Freeholder-At-Large Patricia Sebold.
Some local students said the shooting made them realize how vulnerable they are in their schools.
“I am worried because security in my school isn’t as advanced as at some, so it’s definitely frightening to think of what happened at Marjory Stoneman,” said Lara Coby, 13, from West Caldwell, who came to the rally with her mother.
Others, like 18-year-old Emily Chaleff of Livingston, felt “empowered” after listening to the survivors. Chaleff said she plans to participate in a March walkout — along with teachers — at Livingston High School.
Bruce Greene, president of Temple B'nai Abraham, concluded the evening by noting that though the rally was over, the fight for common sense gun reform continues.
“This concludes the program,” he said, “although this does not conclude action.”