For 17-year-old Nina Heller, taking part in San Francisco’s March for Our Lives to end gun violence lined up chapter and verse with her Jewish values. Literally.
“When you look at Leviticus 19:16, it says you shall not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed,” said the Carlmont High School junior just before the March 24 rally and march. “I think we can interpret that for gun violence prevention. So many things within this movement we can trace back to Judaism. Today is Shabbat but we are praying with our feet.”
Heller, a San Carlos resident, was one of some 150 Bay Area Jewish teens – many representing their NFTY and BBYO chapters – who assembled at Jessie Square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum to rally against gun violence before heading to Civic Center.
The San Francisco gathering, which saw thousands of people march along Market Street to the Embarcadero, was one of an estimated 800 satellite marches held around the world in solidarity with the national March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. That event was organized and led by teen survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead.
Over bagels and coffee, the Jewish teens in San Francisco made signs to carry into the march with such messages as, “Arms are for hugging,” “Enough” and “I thought you were pro-life?” Just before heading down Market Street, they formed a circle and chanted Shabbat morning prayers and sang songs such as “Not By Might” and Matisyahu’s “One Day.”
These Jewish teens proudly claimed kinship with their peers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, who have stunned the nation with their eloquence, poise and grace under fire as they built a national movement in little more than a month. Building on the success of national school walkouts on March 14 and gun control legislation they helped push through in Florida, their goal, according to the movement’s website, is to motivate teens to assert their electoral power, and get comprehensive gun control legislation passed in Congress.
“Our generation has the potential to rise up and do so many incredible things,” said Marlo Sgro, 18, who attends Miramonte High School in Orinda. “My mother told me you’re living the moment; go out there and say what’s right for you. It’s our generation making the changes. We’re the ones speaking up.”
Liora Ami, 17, the social action vice president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s Central West Region, said gun violence has been on her organization’s agenda since she joined the Reform youth movement as a freshman four years ago. She is not surprised her peers are leading the movement to demand new gun safety legislation.
“NFTY has prepped us and taught us how to be leaders,” said Ami, a Jewish Community High School senior. “It taught me my voice is valuable and can make a difference, so it’s no surprise to me there is a NFTY gathering here ready to fight together and lead together.”
Miles Bader, a 16-year-old student at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto and an active BBYO member, said he was especially pleased with the Jewish teen involvement in the movement sparked by the Parkland survivors. “I’m excited to take part with the Jewish teens here and other Jewish teens across the country speaking up and taking more tangible steps in making a change,” he said.
Though the mood was festive on a bright and brisk San Francisco afternoon, the teens remained mindful of the seriousness of their mission.
Lexie Ewer, a student at Vintage High School in Napa and a NFTY activist, considered the Parkland shooting the last straw before she and her peers had to get involved. “I think [politicians] are placing the Second Amendment over the lives of all these people,” she said. “Every time something like this happens, they say we’re going to change things and it doesn’t happen. With this one, we’re not letting them forget.”
On the sidelines, parents stood in admiration. Nina Heller’s mother, Debbie Heller, said her daughter, though only 16, cannot wait to vote. “They want to find a way to make a change,” Heller said of her daughter and her generation. “They are going to change the world. They’ve given me faith that maybe the world will be OK.”
At last the hour came, and her daughter was ready to march.
“We’re here to say enough is enough,” Nina Heller said. “We want universal background checks, we don’t want guns in the hands of the wrong people, and no one should afraid to go to school. We should be worrying about our SAT scores and not whether we’ll live to graduate. At the end of the day, our elected officials work for us, and if they see this is what the people want, they should be doing that, and if not we will vote them out.”