They could have been our kids.
Alyssa Alhadeff was 15 years old, a freshman in high school. She loved to play soccer. She loved to laugh. She had her bat mitzvah a couple of years ago on Masada. Last summer she attended Camp Coleman, the URJ summer camp in northern Georgia, the southern equivalent of Camps Harlam, Eisner, or Crane Lake. “She was one of those children who always had a smile on her face, just full of love,” Rabbi Shuey Biston of Chabad of Parkland said.
Alex Schachter, 14, also was a freshman. He loved to play basketball. He played the trombone in the school marching band and won a state championship last year. “A sweetheart of a kid,” his father said. “He just wanted to do well and make his parents happy.”
Jaime Guttenberg, also was 14 and a freshman. She loved to dance. She loved the color orange. Her father called her the “life of the party.” Her aunt called her “intelligent” and “feisty.” She wanted to be a mom and an occupational therapist.
Meadow Pollack was 18 years old, a senior. She planned to attend Lynn University in the fall. On Monday she shared a photo on Facebook of herself with her grandmother, Evelyn Silverberg Pollack. “Nothing makes me happier than my grandma and her smile,” she wrote.
They were four Jewish kids who attended a top public high school in an affluent suburb of a major city, just like ours. The only difference between these kids and ours is that a young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle showed up at their school last week and killed them.
In an instant their lives were cruelly snuffed out, along with 14 others, including a young Jewish teacher, Scott Beigel.
A society that fails to protect its children is a failed society.
You know that. I know that. Our children know that. The difference between us and our children is that while so many of us have thrown up our hands in disgust and despair, our children have not given up.
Just last Monday I sat in Congressman Pascrell’s office with nine students from Temple Sinai of Bergen County who attend Tenafly High School. (Bill Pascrell, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’ 9th District in Congress.) We were at the end of L’taken, a wonderful, inspiring weekend in Washington sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. L’taken is the verb form of tikkun, as in tikkun olam, repairing the world. The weekend was dedicated to the Jewish principle that we have the responsibility to do what we can to repair this broken world.
This what our teens believe; this is what our teens did. Our Temple Sinai students lobbied on three different issues. Evan Zlotnick, Billie Singer and Neal Rodin chose to lobby on this issue of gun violence prevention. During their presentation Neal told this story:
Last year, we all had an extremely scary situation in which everyone in our school… believed we were all in grave danger. Our school…was locked down because an unknown person who could’ve been dangerous for all anyone knew had entered the building….I happened to be in my stats class when we went into lockdown. When Tenafly High School goes into lockdown, the students are generally elated to stop doing their work. But when the lockdown lasts awhile, people start to get worried. This lockdown went on for a while.
Students and faculty started to be concerned. My teacher, in fact, said that if we heard gunshots, that she’d help us out the windows, because we were on the first floor, and we should run away like the wind…. People were messaging each other frantically that there were police in the hallways, indicating that something was clearly amiss.
The lockdown eventually ended after a prolonged period of time and normal schooling resumed. The entire experience from beginning to end was terrifying. No one should have to experience something like this ever. Yet, because there have been so many mass shootings and school shootings, we live in a climate of fear. All of this is because of the easy access people have to guns.
Evan, Billie, Neal — indeed all our kids — live with this anxiety every day. And they are taking action. The specific bill they lobbied for is called the Background Check Completion Act, H.R. 3464. It will close a loophole in the background check system. Would this law have prevented what happened in Parkland? Maybe not. But it might save another group of teenagers one day.
We need to follow our kids’ lead. After all, as Evan, Billie, and Neal told the aide to Congressman Pascrell, it says in the Talmud, “He who takes one life — it is as though he has destroyed the universe; and he who saves one life — it is as though he has saved the universe.”
How can we do any less?
Jordan Millstein is the rabbi of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly.