By Stacey Dresner
On the morning of Friday, March 23, a chartered bus left the parking lot of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport with nine members of Hanefesh USY, the Connecticut Valley region of United Synagogue Youth. The bus, carrying USY members from Westport, Hartford and New Haven, made a stop in New Jersey to pick up USYers from that area, before travelling on to the nation’s Capitol.
It was Shabbat Hagadol – the Shabbat before Passover – and these Jewish teens chose to observe it by participating in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24.
“We prayed with our feet this weekend,” says Hallel Shapiro-Franklin, a high school senior from New Haven.
Hanefesh USY was among a large contingent from USY chapters from around the country to pour into D.C. to express their support for stricter gun laws and an end to gun violence in schools.
Organized by Never Again MSD, the group of students who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the marches and rallies held around the U.S. that day are estimated to have drawn close two million people.
“We stood together and took part in something truly amazing,” Shapiro-Franklin says. “I felt empowered and proud to be part of a generation that wasn’t going to be silenced and wouldn’t allow themselves to go back to sleep and forget.”
Annie Glasser, youth director at The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, chartered the bus that took the USY group to D.C. Glasser, 23, a former USY Westport chapter president, went as one of two chaperones on the trip, but calls the effort “100 percent student-driven.”
The Connecticut students were among 170 teens that gathered the night before at Adas Israel Congregation and other locations in the D.C.-Maryland area for a Kabbalat Shabbat experience, including prayer, Shabbat dinner, and text study relevant to gun safety.
“We spent much of the weekend, both before and after the march, discussing how this event connected to our Jewish values,” says Ava Glick, 17, chapter president of Westport USY. “It made me feel incredible to know that, not only was I doing something good for the nation, but I was also doing something good from a Jewish mindset.”
“We also talked about how Judaism relates to the subject of gun control and gun violence,” adds Eliza Oren, a USYer from Westport. “It was really cool how we connected modern-day messages to certain parts of the Torah.”
On Saturday, all of the members of USY traveled to the rally together under the USY banner. They met at a centralized area dressed in USY t-shirts. Wanting to keep Shabbat, most of them walked together to the location where the march was set to begin.
“It was very special to be with other USYers during this trip. Not only was I sharing this momentous time with other people my age, but I was also sharing this moment with people that share the same Jewish values as I,” Glick says. “There were also times before the march started when all of the USYers that were staying together would sing prayers like ‘Ozi v’Zimrat Yah.’ There is a very special connection that we all shared because even though I hadn’t met most of them before the march, we were united under our common beliefs.”
Marching together with Jewish teens from around the country made the event even more special.
“The march itself was the single most awe-inspiring event I have ever attended. It was awesome to be able to march beside passionate USY teens,” Oren says.
Once on the National Mall, the members of USY stood among the crowd.
“I left the march with a renewed sense of hope and empowerment for the change I now know we can make,” Glick says, noting that many of the speeches brought her to tears.
She was especially moved by two of the youngest speakers – 11-year-old Naomi Wadler and nine-year-old Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the crowd in a chant.
The crowd also heard emotional words from students touched personally by school gun violence.
“I got very emotional when Sam Fuentes, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, told the crowd that it was Nicholas Dworet’s 18th birthday and led us all in singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” Glick says. “Of course, being from Connecticut, it was very emotional to hear the students from Newtown talk about their experiences and tell the students from Parkland that they stand with them on that day and always.”
The USY group reunited at the synagogue after the march and to daven Maariv and Havdallah before heading home.
“We applaud our teens’ decision to participate in the march and still observe the Sabbath,” says Jason Kay, regional field engagement coordinator for Hanefesh USY. “They have shown us that it is possible to find connection to something larger than ourselves, and still live full, meaningful Jewish lives in 21st-century North America.”
And these young Jews say they keep up the connection, vowing to continue to work on the issue of guns and school safety.
CAP: Hanefesh USY teens attending the rally included: (l to r) Hallel Shapiro-Franklin (senior, Woodbridge); Brooke Wrubel (freshman at Bowdoin College, from Westport); Michal Fass (sophomore, Stamford); Dana Cohen (junior, Weston); Ava Glick (junior, Westport); and Ayelet Wiederhorn (sophomore, Westport).