I write this while on a plane en route from our nation’s capital after having shared in a remarkable and life-changing Shabbat experience. On Friday night, I was honored to be asked by my dear friend, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, to participate in an Erev Shabbat service at Washington Hebrew Congregation along with other musicians including Dan Nichols, Stacy Beyer, Noah Aronson and Alan Goodis. Our Director of Youth Engagement, Megan Garrett, and two parent chaperones also accompanied a delegation of several of our teens. They spent the night in the Synagogue along with over 450 young people from across the country. During the service,we were joined on the Bema by several young people who spoke - many who were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Others were leaders of their NFTY regions. After the service, my musical colleagues and I led a short concert and song-session during which I sang the protest anthem that Steve Brodsky and I co-wrote, “Praying With Our Feet.” While the music was an important part of the evening, the primary focus was on the teenagers. The poise, pain and incredible leadership that these young people displayed while sharing their stories was both moving and inspiring.
On Shabbat morning, the entire NFTY delegation and many other adults prayed together in a pre-rally Shabbat service. We were joined by many dignitaries - including Debbie Wasserman Shultz – the US Congresswoman who represents Parkland, Florida, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs who addressed the congregation via video feed. But once again, the major focus of the service were the young people who led us in prayer and song. There was one incredibly moving moment towards the end of the service when my friend and colleague, Rabbi Brad Boxman, who serves a congregation in Parkland, FL, shared how, on the first Shabbat following the shootings, he asked all of the adults in his packed sanctuary to turn to the children who sat with and near them and bless them. He then asked all of us who were present to do the same. As we placed our hands on the heads of these beautiful teenagers and said the words of the Priestly blessing together, tears flowed freely down our faces. You see, we knew that we had come to DC to protest. We knew that change had to come. We were charged and ready. But there was something about praying for God’s protective blessing on these precious, beautiful souls that shifted our focus and made everything very real. We were not about to march for a cause: we were marching for our children’s lives. And then we started our journey to the rally.
We carried signs and banners with sacred texts:
• “If not now, when?”
• ‘It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from carrying it out.”
• “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds”
We chanted, we sang, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day. But our march soon came to a halt when we realized that there were so many people filling the streets that we could only go a few blocks. Every space in the street surrounding the Capital was filled. But it didn’t matter. We watched on video screens, heard from loudspeakers and felt the determination in the million other marchers who were with us. We came from all walks of life - all colors and creeds - but we shared in our determination to speak up and say enough:
• Enough killing;
• Enough pretending that the issue is not guns, but people;
• Enough ignoring the plight of people of color;
• Enough manipulation from the gun lobby;
• Enough silence from legislators who are afraid to address the issue of easy access to weapons of mass destruction.
This was not a political rally - although, after today’s events, many politicians will be worried about keeping their seats - and they should be. We marched for moral, not partisan reasons. This was not, as some have charged, a volley of Left Wing talking points - it was a rising up of a generation raised in the shadows of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas, Parkland and too many other tragedies that have been lost in the endless cycle of shootings that have become yesterday’s news.
The rock stars and celebrities who were on stage were not the focus of the rally either. No, it was the children- the survivors who have taken on the mantle of leadership - who stirred our souls and compelled us to action. We heard about the toll that daily violence on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC has taken. We wept along with speakers who had lost brothers and sisters to bullets. We heard the passion of the newly-energized victims of school shootings who have watched as the adults in their lives relinquished the responsibility of protecting them and, as a result, have taken it upon themselves to give notice to their elected officials that silence is complicity, and that they refuse to remain silent.
As I contemplate this remarkable 24 hours, I am in awe. The vision, poise, leadership and power that these young activists have discovered gives me hope that not all is lost, and that the future will be in good hands. I also am more determined than ever to both speak out against and call out the hypocrisy and callous disregard for human life that the gun lobby and its enablers have fostered in our society.
Let me be very clear: I am not opposed to guns per se. I am, however, opposed to the idolatry that gun worship has spawned in our nation. We owe it to our children to speak out as loud and proud as they do. They have taken on the mantle of leadership. I am compelled to follow. Will you join with me?
We can do no less.