Change Requires New Voices


On March 24, I joined over 100,000 New Yorkers for the March for Our Lives rally. I wasn’t sure how to support this movement, but I believe that the first step is showing up. My fellow USCJ leaders also helped make it possible for hundreds of our teens to show up and attend the Washington march and marches around the country.

As I entered the crowd at 79 and Central Park West, I was struck by the energy on the street. There was a sea of signs. Some implored us to “March 4 Grace” to remember a child that had been killed. Others asked us to connect the march to black lives lost to gang violence or police violence.

There were signs that had a picture of a hand gun or an assault weapon with a line through it, saying “No More.” There were pictures of President Trump with a line though his face with the message “Vote him out.”

One sign was aimed at right wing opposition, saying “I thought you were pro-life.” This rally was full of life, palpably life-affirming. People wore all kinds of t-shirts, which acted as walking billboards. They had buttons on their jackets. Their hats and caps created a landscape of messages.  A group of emergency room doctors pleaded for a reduction in gun violence — they want their ERs to be less busy. These marchers confronted the spectrum of violence with expressions of life and love. A little humor was also evident. One sign read, “It’s easier to buy a gun than a puppy.”

What feels different now?

We are all grieving about what has happened in Parkland. This is not, however, the first massacre we have witnessed. What feels different now? The Parkland leaders were equipped with their tragic life experience and their shared stories. They were present on the day. They heard the gun shots. They waited to see if their missing friends would come out of the building. They experienced loss. Parkland leader, Emma Gonzalez spoke in Washington D.C. about the real lives lost. She painted a portrait of loss — the boy who would never play basketball with his friend, the girl who would never make her friend laugh. And so it went. This was not loss in the abstract. This was about how tragedy haunts a building and a community.

One father of a murdered child was interviewed on TV. He said he used to criticize his child for spending too much time on her cell phone. But in the wake of the shooting, he saw how truly connected these kids all are. They are community builders. They are inclusive. They have the power of their convictions. These Parkland kids are different.

Lesson for Leaders

Across the country, most people feel that gun violence is a problem. We are thirsty for change, but we can’t get there. This reminds me of a midrash about a community that couldn’t solve a problem.

“Rabbi Hanina: Torah is like a deep well full of water whose waters were cold and sweet and delicious, but no one was able to drink from it. Then a certain person came along, and supplied the well with one cord tied to another, one rope tied to another, and drew water out of the well, and drank from it. Then everyone began to draw water and drink it.”      –Shir HaShirim Rabbah

The Parkland kids felt the need to step forward. In order for change to happen, leadership must come along. But sometimes, the leader is reluctant. Moses did not feel he had the gift of speech. Esther didn’t think she had what it took. The Parkland kids, well they are just kids. One speaker, Samantha Fuentes was so overwrought that she threw up. She composed herself and went back to finish her speech. She reported. “I just threw up on international TV and it feels great.” No teen failed to see that if she can laugh that off and move on, so can they.

The Parkland teens are gifted bridge builders and cord makers. First, they became a group of leaders – there are multiple spokespersons not one official voice. As they spoke, other kids began to realize that they too could give voice to what they felt, namely concern and outrage. New people stepped forward because of what their leaders did. They did not step forward because their parents nagged them. They did not step forward to hear a politician recite a list of talking points. They did not step forward because an adult leader told them how to march. They simply decided to role model the change they sought.

Next Generation leadership is fueled by the power of authenticity, and so they welcome the authentic stories of others. In New York, we heard the voices of teens that were at Newtown, children who lost their parents on 9/11, and black children who lost loved ones from gang violence. This is a diverse group of young people. Their faces, their voices, and their stories all were different, but they all had the same goal. They wanted to drink from the waters of hope. They wanted to end gun violence.

These young people do not want to be another name on a politician’s email list. This generation has a radar warning system for phoniness. They hold signs which say “We call BS.” BS is the opposite of authentic.  The Parkland leaders, wise beyond their years, see the diverse storytellers as kin. They are lengthening the cord. As more and more people joined the march, I got goose pimples down my arm.

When Moses meets God, God tells Moses to pay attention to the sacred moment and the sacred space, because he stands on holy ground. (Exodus 3:5).There is something different about this moment, this movement, and the ground we stand on. That was the feeling running down my arm. I sense the ground shifting under me. This is indeed holy ground.

Engaging Young Jews

There are lessons here for synagogue leaders.  Read books like Next Generation Judaism and try to find new ways to get unengaged members to participate. In the book, Rabbi Mike Uram argues that to reach this new generation, we need to do the following:

  • Have a different brand — a fresh story
  • Engage them where they are — at Starbucks, in the street
  • Meet them at times that work for them
  • Send leaders to meet them who look and talk like they do
  • Talks about their story, not the story of the synagogue
  • Talk about an issues they care about – what keeps them up at night, like school safety – rather than how they can help us cover our budget deficit

The Parkland students have done our synagogues a great service. They have shown how letting people organize around an issue that they really care about creates community, engages a diverse group of people and empowers them to strengthen community. The Parkland kids have taught us how to lengthen the cord.

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