Shining Light in Response to Gun Violence

Dr. Susan London

It is difficult to imagine that the school shooting that took place in 1999 at Columbine High School, an event that seemed completely foreign and like something written out of a horror movie, has become almost commonplace today. We've seen shootings in schools, workplaces, malls, concerts, movie theaters and now in our most sacred of spaces: churches and synagogues. I was a junior in college when Columbine took place, and I remember clearly how my classmates and I sat in our seminar class grappling with the news—numb and dumbfounded that such an event could happen in the United States of America.

Yet almost 20 years later, we still see reports of school shootings. For educators, this creates a conflict: How can we honor and memorialize the victims, educate our students about the world in which we live, while also allowing them to feel that their world is a safe place? It’s a delicate tightrope to walk.

At our school, we handle these tragedies by confronting them. We do not treat them just as news stories that we can choose to gloss over. We teach our students that where there is darkness, we must try to shine light. When the shooting took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last year, just miles from our own school, our high school students responded. They organized a student-run assembly to memorialize the 17 victims of the shooting. Probably most powerful, the father of Meadow Pollack, who was killed in the Douglas shooting, spoke to our students over speakerphone about the importance of voting and gun control. Our students also initiated a fundraiser by designing a T-shirt that read “Douglas Strong.” All of the proceeds from the fundraiser were donated to the Chabad of Parkland, hand delivered by our students.

When another shooting occurred in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we set up a memorial service and assembly in the middle and high schools to remember the lives of the 11 adults who were murdered. We lit candles, paid tribute to each victim and recited the Kaddish. We also showed the ADL’s video titled “Imagine a World without Hate” and used it as a springboard for a deeper conversation about the consequences of hate. Our middle school students demonstrated their caring by sending cards to congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue. In our elementary school, students created a “Tree of Life” filled with mitzvot performed by students in honor of the victims of this tragedy.

And sadly, it still does not feel like enough: a vigil, a memorial service, an assembly, a T-shirt sale. It feels nothing short of troubling to know that our students are living in a time where a schoolwide memorial service feels familiar. We hope that we have lit our last candle for all of these victims of gun violence, and that is the message our students walk away with as well.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019