Jewish students throughout the Washington, D.C., area are preparing to add some Shabbat flavor to the upcoming March for Our Lives — a demonstration demanding an end to gun violence — on March 24. They are working to provide space for out-of-town students to spend Shabbat, ensure guests can attend communal services, and manage logistics like food and sign making.
“What’s so great about this is that the teens initiated this,” said Rabbi Michael Safra, senior rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. "The students didn’t want to just march against guns, “they really wanted to make this a Shabbat experience.” 750 teens from the Conservative movement are expected to join their peers at the "Shabbat for Our Lives" event hosted at the synagogue and sponsored by the Seaboard region of United Synagogue Youth (USY). The program will include Shabbat dinner Friday night and a teen-led minyan Saturday morning.
Other USYers will head to a shabbaton at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., featuring a Friday night dinner, service, and sessions covering school safety, gun safety, and social activism.
Washington Hebrew Congregation's (WHC) “Shabbat for Our Lives: A Shabbat Service Vigil, and Social Justice Song Session" will include Friday night dinner, a student-led service, and a vigil concert. More than 500 students from around the country are expected to attend and sleep in the synagogue’s two large social halls. If the number of attendees keeps climbing, Rabbi Bruce Lustig of WHC said the temple will open its education center in Potomac, Maryland, as well.
The students will munch on bagels donated by Bethesda Bagels and a bagged lunch to take to the March. Inside each bag will be an ACLU-written explanation of the rights of protestors, said Rabbi Lustig.
“We are doing everything we can to empower them and for them to empower us,” he said. “Maybe they can get something done that we couldn’t get done. That’s the hope.”
Ezra Einhorn, a senior at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville and a member of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, is working to make participating in the March feasible for observant Jews, especially those not from this area, even though it will be on Shabbat.
Along with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Einhorn has planned “an entire shomer-Shabbat [Sabbath-observant] weekend,” filled with meals, discussions, and camaraderie. Saturday morning will begin with a service led by teenagers. Then participants will walk about 30 minutes to join a commemorative vigil at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Later, the group will walk the five or six miles to join the March, Einhorn said.
Samuel Hamermesh, a sophomore mechanical engineering student at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, plans to attend the March with some friends from the school’s Hillel. For him, “It’s important for us to get out there and say enough is enough.”
Hillel International Hospitality Center at the Schusterman International Center is open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm for those who want to relax, recharge, and grab a snack. The Edlavitch DCJCC also will be available and will hold a service for teenagers attending the March.
Students from the Annapolis area will rally Saturday morning at Lawyer’s Mall and then march past City Dock to Susan Campbell Park.
Fifteen teenagers and their parents recently spent an evening at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Fairfax, Virginia, and created posters they will carry at the March, said Barry Smith, education director at Beth El. Some Beth El students will deliver the speeches about gun violence during a Shabbaton the night before the march.
Congregation members plan to join up with other Reform synagogue youth at a morning pre-rally and service by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) at the Marriott Marquis on Massachusetts Ave, NW, in DC.
For many local Jewish youth, Saturday’s March will not be the first time they made a statement on gun control and school safety.
Gabrielle Zwi, 17, of Rockville, Maryland, was in a group chat with some friends she had met at a recent USY event when one participant, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, texted on Feb. 14 that she could not find her friends.
“That had a really large impact,” said Zwi, and it is why she is working with five classmates at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, to help as many students as possible attend the March for Our Lives in DC this weekend.
A week before the event, Zwi and friends had already matched 250 students with home hospitality in the Bethesda area. “We have room for 500 more,” she said.
“This is a student-led initiative to show support,” Zwi said, adding that she hoped politicians and corporations would see how many people who will soon reach voting age support gun control and safety in schools.
“If they don’t support us, we won’t support them. The more people we have there physically, the more of an impact we will have,” she said.
Last week, minutes before teenagers around the country walked out of class March 14 as part of a nation-wide student walkout demanding legslative action to prevent future school shootings, Zwi rushed out of the U.S. Capitol — where she was attending a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun safety — in order to participate.
Students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville, Maryland, joined the walkout as well. They spent 17 minutes outside their classrooms memorializing the Parkland school victims.
“We walked out today, along with hundreds of thousands of other students across the country to encourage advocacy and serious change in legislation to create a positive difference in our society,” said Jacob Cannon, an 11th grader who addressed his fellow students during the walkout.
“The students respectfully and in an organized way shared their opinions, demanded that Congress take legislative action to ensure their safety in schools, and memorialized the victims from the Parkland school,” said Head of School Rabbi Mitchel Malkus. “I was impressed with the thoughtful way they conducted themselves.”
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.