Three weeks after a gunman murdered 17 at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the heads of three Washington-area Jewish days schools signed a letter calling for President Trump and legislators to “enact common sense legislation” to protect students and schools.
“As leaders in our communities, as Jews of conscience, and most of all, as those who have taken on the sacred task of educating and protecting our children, we feel compelled to join our nation’s youth to demand action that will increase safety in all of our schools,” read the letter, distributed by the New York-based Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools and signed by 139 school heads.
“I felt it was definitely necessary to add my name to the chorus of those who had already signed, and even more to ensure my name is not missing,” said Joshua Levisohn of Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, who signed the letter along with Naomi Reem of Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington and Rabbi Mitchel Malkus of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
This issue of gun reform and safety in schools “presents a dilemma” for educators, said Malkus, because it is important to ensure students can learn and make up their own minds without schools telling them how to think.
“I want to create an environment where they’re really learning about an issue,” he said. “And yet in this case, if I didn’t speak out, then I would feel complicit in the next attack.”
A group of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School students suspended a walkout last month in protest of the Parkland shooting after what they called school pressure. Malkus said the school can’t protect students when they go off school grounds and the students were told they’d face the normal consequences that come from missing a day of school.
He said students are working on “more inclusive” event.
Dan Finkel, head of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, and Rabbi Yitzhok Merkin, the head of Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, did not sign the letter.
Finkel said he didn’t see it as his place to take what he called a political stance.
“It was a decision not to sign,” he said. “It’s not the school’s job to take a position. It’s the school’s position to enact its mission.”
This issue means a lot to the students, Finkel said, and several were planning to participate in the national school walkout on Wednesday. Gesher will not penalize those students, he said.
Finkel said he wants to encourage the students to make their voices heard. Rather than speak up himself, he said he is trying to promote “the value of civic disagreement and constructive conflict. I’ve been taking what I think is a more educational stance than a political stance.”
A national march, called “March for Our Lives,” is planned in Washington for March 24.
The letter does not offer any policy recommendations or come out in favor of any proposals. It instead calls for a “safe and secure educational community” and supports the work of students, especially those from Parkland, to address this issue.
Malkus and Levisohn said some may have wanted the letter to go further or be more specific, but both felt it struck the right tone.
Said Levisohn, “I think it demonstrates that we who are in charge of schools would like there to be further action in protecting schools and [the letter has] given a collective boost to that message.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.