Gesher Day School students join nationwide walkout

Students at Gesher Jewish Day School held signs calling for action on gun violence during a walkout Wednesday. Photo by Jared Foretek

At the stroke of 10, 14 middle school, students left their classes and walked out of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, joining a nationwide school walkout on March 14 to mark the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Clutching handmade signs, they stood on the edge of four-lane Shirley Gate Road. A number of passing cars honked in support.

The walkout, a prelude to Saturday’s planned “March for Our Lives” in Washington, lasted 17 minutes, in remembrance of the shooting’s 17 victims.

“Learning is a really important Jewish value, and you can’t really learn if you’re constantly worried about lockdowns, gun threats and your safety,” said seventh-grader Talia Holzman, one of the walkout’s organizers. “And if kids can take a stand and take action, then adults should be able to, too. Kids are kids, they shouldn’t be having to worry about their own lives.”

The New York Times reported that students left class in the thousands nationwide, in walkouts both rogue and sanctioned. In Rockville, students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Berman Hebrew Academy walked out as well.

Talia said the school’s administration had supported the walkout, though she was prepared to act even if it hadn’t. For safety, the students were joined on the roadside by Head of School Dan Finkel and Principal Jodi Hirsch-Rein.
Talia said she had emailed administrators in advance, not to ask for permission, but simply to give notice, Hirsch-Rein said.

“The students declared that they were walking out,” Hirsch-Rein said. “Then we reined them in by saying, ‘We would like to make sure you have adult supervision and we will support the students choices make. Let’s talk about how we do it.’”

In Brooklyn, students at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School held a prayer memorial service, giving out note cards with the names of gun violence victims. They lit a yahrzeit candle and prayed before some walked out of the school to Brooklyn Borough Hall, where a larger demonstration was held with students from other schools.

“We’re a school that really promotes the idea of social action and not just talking about issues but taking action to make a difference,” said Annette Powers, Hannah Senesh’s director of communications and marketing.

NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth group, urged members in public schools and day schools to march and share their participation on social media using the hashtag #JewsDemandAction.

In Washington, local officials are preparing for 500,000 people to join the March for Our Lives on Saturday. Organized by students from Stoneman Douglas, the protest will run along Pennsylvania Avenue from Third to Fourteenth Streets, blocks from the White House. Several Jewish congregations are among those offering sleeping accommodations for out-of-towners and food for marchers.

At last week’s vigil at Gesher Jewish Day School, Anouchka Ettedgui held a sign reading, “Am I next?” She recalled the day in February 2017 when her school received a bomb threat. She said she wants there to be rigorous mental screening before anyone can buy a gun.

“This is about child safety,” she said. “Before you get a gun, you should have to go through testing. If they don’t accept you to have a gun, then you shouldn’t get a gun.”

Talia said she supports a ban on military-style weapons like the AR-15 used by Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Parkland shooting.

“Assault rifles shouldn’t be open to the general public. If you feel comfortable with a shotgun and that’s what makes you feel safe, then fine,” Talia said. “But assault rifles should only be available to the military.”

The school administration was staying out of the politics of gun control, Finkel and Hirsch-Rein said. But there was never a question about whether the school would support the demonstration. Some schools had threatened to punish students who walk out.

“I think this expression is very much in line with the values that Jewish day schools want to teach about advocacy and improving the world and leadership,” Finkel said. “It’s part of our mission.”

After 17 minutes in near silence — the solemn nature of the demonstration broken only by the occasional middle school giggle — the students walked back through the school doors, and the day resumed.

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JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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