'Either Congress gets something done or we'll vote them out'

Jewish marchers at US gun rallies demand Congressional action

‘No political agenda is more critical than addressing gun violence issues,’ one Orthodox organization says, as hundreds of thousands throughout America rally for legislative reform

Students from the High School for American Studies in the Bronx. (Cathryn J. Prince)
Students from the High School for American Studies in the Bronx. (Cathryn J. Prince)

NEW YORK — Emily Dolgin didn’t know Alyssa Alhadeff, one of the 17 victims of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But having spent 12 summers at Camp Coleman, she knows Alyssa’s counselors and she knows Alyssa’s friends.

“Her death — along with the many others across the nation — has haunted me over these past five weeks, and will continue to stay with me throughout my life. Parkland hit way too close to home, but it was the wake-up call I desperately needed. I’ve seen how this shooting affected my own campers, and it pains me that they don’t feel safe going to school,” Dolgin, 21, said.

And so the Barnard College student carried Alyssa in her heart as she joined hundreds of thousands of people in the March For Our Lives to push for stricter gun control measures.

Alyssa Alhadeff (Oregon Youth Soccer Association/Facebook via JTA)

As part of the Reform Movement and an alumna of NFTY — The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, Dolgin was part of a strong Jewish contingent that turned out Saturday morning. Several synagogues and advocacy groups, including Synagogue B’nai Jeshrun, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and Torah Trumps Hate took part in the rally in Central Park and the march that followed.

“Judaism teaches us that to save a life is to save an entire world. Alyssa’s death surely impacted my smaller world comprised of Camp Coleman campers and alumni,” Dolgin, who grew up in Tampa, Florida, said.

“Parkland becoming a global example of gun violence further impacted me, as it’s a place where I’ve celebrated numerous Jewish holidays and traditions; it’s where I met some of my closest friends through NFTY.”

Protesters at a gun control rally in New York City, March 24, 2018 (Cathryn J. Prince)

The New York event was one of 800 such events taking place worldwide.

From Washington, DC to San Francisco, from London to Tel Aviv, Americans marched not only for the lives lost in Parkland, Florida, but also the 58 lives cut short in Las Vegas. They marched for the 12 lives taken at the Washington Navy Yard and the 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They marched for the 96 lives lost every day to gun violence.

They chanted “No more silence, end gun violence,” and held high signs with “Eighteenth Century laws cannot regulate 21st century lives.”

Kate and Sam Wheatley of New York came to show their disgust with Congressional inaction on gun reform. This was the first time they took part in a political protest.

“You can own a hunting rifle or a pistol. But enough is enough,” Kate Wheatley said.

Kate and Sam Wheatley taking part in their first political protest, March 24, 2018 (Cathryn J. Prince)

Regardless of where marchers fell on the political or religious spectrum, they called on Congress to act now to pass comprehensive gun reform.

“School safety is not a political issue. There cannot be two sides to doing everything in our power to ensure the lives and futures of children who are at risk of dying when they should be learning, playing, and growing,” Orthodox grassroots organization Torah Trumps Hate said on its Facebook page.

“No special interest group, no political agenda is more critical than timely passage of legislation to effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.”

The group said such legislation should include a ban on AR-15 assault rifles, increased background checks, a ban on bump fire stocks, which are pieces of equipment that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire in rapid succession, as well as raising the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21.

On Friday the US Department of Justice announced plans to ban bump stocks and define them within the definition of “machine gun” under federal law.

Earlier this month Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott broke with the National Rifle Association and signed new gun restrictions into law. The law raises age restrictions on the purchase of firearms across the state, bans the purchase and possession of bump stocks, and sets a three-day waiting period to buy any gun, including rifles and shotguns. The legislation also includes a provision for $400 million for mental health services, school safety measures, and a proposal to arm some teachers.

Since the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would no longer sell assault-style rifles and will only sell firearms to those over 21. REI, Kroger’s, LL Bean, and Walmart have also instituted new retail policies regarding firearms.

Before the march the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan hosted Jewish groups of all denominations for a Shabbat breakfast.

Maya Katz, a student at the High School for American Studies in the Bronx, said she was marching because no student should have to face gun violence and it was time to make her voice heard.

NYC NFTY leader Rachel Landis first got involved in gun violence prevention advocacy work during her freshman year of high school when she attended an informational session at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Left to right: Izzy Hochman, NY NFTY member Rachel Landis, and Barak Landis (Courtesy: Rachel Landis)

“I’ve been passionate about this for a very long time. But the focus is not just on school violence. Parkland was not an isolated event. It’s the violence that happens in cities and other places,” Landis, 17, told the Times of Israel.

Landis was one of the speakers at the New York City event, which raised $26,507 through GoFundMe. Other speakers included survivors of gun violence, and a student from Parkland.

While Landis can’t vote in the mid-term elections, she said politicians should pay attention to this movement.

“I want to work so hard that politicians have to listen to us because we are future voters,” she said. “Either Congress is going to get something done or we will vote them out. If not this time, then the time after that, or the time after that.”

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