By Zoe Terner, Social Action Vice President, NFTY-Southern Tropical Region
I hope you saw the news stories about buses of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, making their way to Florida’s Capitol to plead with their legislators about preventing gun violence. For the past 24 hours, the Parkland Reform Jewish community made me one of their own and welcomed me onto their own bus to Tallahassee.
I spent eight hours driving from Parkland to the Capitol with a group of my friends who, for a few hours one week ago, I believed might be dead.
When our bus stopped for dinner at a rest stop on our way to Tallahassee, Rabbi Bradd Boxman, who was leading the trip, leaned into a crackly mic and told us to wait for a staff member to pay for our meals; this was on them.
I pulled him aside as I got off the bus. “Rabbi,” I said, "the congregation doesn’t need to pay for me. I can do it. It’s really not a big deal.”
The rabbi put his hand on mine and said, “No. You’re one of us now.”
When we arrived in Tallahassee, well past 11pm, congregants from Temple Israel in Tallahassee greeted us with a banner and goodie bags full of snacks. “We are with you,” they said. “We are so proud of you.”
Last night and all day today, we found that everyone we interacted with has consistently wanted to feed us; a mom who ran into us during a bathroom break in a Walmart bought Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies for our entire bus. Sitting together for dinner at the rest stop, one of our chaperones, a father of two students from Douglas, talked about the outpouring of love they’ve received, juxtaposed against Tuesday’s news that the Florida House overwhelmingly voted not to hear a bill on banning assault rifles.
“It’s simple,” he said. “You’re either with us, or you have blood on your hands.”
I’m one of them now.
This morning, as our bus rolled up to the Florida Capitol building, we were met with a swarm of photographers and journalists. People with cameras and microphones came running from buildings all around the street to meet us with questions and take our photographs as we stood on the Capitol steps with our posters. Later, my parents sent me a screenshot of this picture, juxtaposed next to Wolf Blitzer on CNN. My friends were interviewed by BBC, CNN, Telemundo, and MSNBC; I spoke with a reporter from CBS. All day, we were also followed around by an Associated Press crew.
The eyes of the nation were on us.
Wearing our Parkland Strong shirts and orange ribbons, we spent hours marching through both the House and the Senate buildings, meeting with legislator after legislator. In many offices, we received warm receptions; more than one senator broke down into tears expressing their sorrows and apologies to us, and nearly everyone we walked by in the hallway paused to let us pass, clapping as we went. We made these people promise that they would not give up.
“We have to go home tomorrow,” one of our students told a senator, "but you get to stay here. You get to keep fighting. Please don’t forget us.”
In other offices, we were met with a blatant resistance. One representative looked us in the eyes and told us that he voted against hearing the automatic rifle ban bill. When pressed on what he would do to make sure that such a tragedy could never occur again, he told us that he was a new member of the House, and really didn’t have very much power. In our group picture with him, not a single student is smiling.
Worse still, one representative failed to keep his appointment with us. When we reached his office, trailed by a slew of cameramen, his legislative assistant informed us that the representative was in a committee hearing and wouldn’t be able to meet with us today.
“We’re just looking for some answers on why the representative would have voted against hearing the ban on automatic rifles,” Rabbi Boxman asked. The assistant informed us that he wouldn’t speak on behalf of the representative, and refused to comment.
“Fine,” we said. “What room did you say the committee was in?”
Taking our own personal press corps with us, we marched together to the Judiciary Committee, where we quietly filed in and sat together in the first two rows. As we took our seats, everyone gathered turned to stare and whisper about “the Parkland kids” crashing their meeting. True to the rigid rules and structure of a committee meeting, the representatives continued their business as though we weren’t there.
At the end of the meeting – once another, totally separate bill had been passed – a representative was recognized by the chair for a point of personal privilege: “Mr. Chair, I’d like to ask you to recognize the students of Stoneman Douglas High School with us today. I implore you to listen to them.”
In an unprecedented action, the chairman agreed. Two students from our group spoke before the committee, sharing their stories and calling out by name the representative who had canceled on us, in front of his colleagues on the committee.
“I’ve served in the House for 12 years now,” one representative said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
It’s true: Nothing like this has ever happened before. Never before have students across the country mobilized like this, and never before have the eyes of the nation been so closely trained on us as we fight for change. A country-wide call to action roars loudly in all of our ears, and NFTY is heeding the call.
As I sat in that committee today, I lived history. I helped to make history.
There are those who would say that calling your representatives doesn’t matter, or that one vote will never make change. In response, I would share the story of Sen. Renee Garcia, who today sat with me and five other Parkland teens, listening to our stories and passionate arguments for gun reform. We pleaded with him to support a comprehensive ban on assault rifles in the state of Florida, and desperately asked for his legislative support.
“Listen,” he said. “I don’t believe that banning ARs is the solution. They’re just going to change the name and sell them some other way.”
“If I may, Senator?” I asked, interrupting. “There’s a saying in Judaism: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ It’s true that this piece of legislation isn’t a total solution, and it’s true that we have so much work left to do. But, Senator, this is a step. This is a beginning. We are determined to do something, anything, that will save just one life. And then we will keep going – until we have saved them all.”
At the end of our meeting, Sen. Garcia told us: “I will be your voice.”
Though he disagreed with our proposed course of action, he promised that he would represent us, his constituents, and vote for the ban when it finally comes to the Senate. To him, I say: Sen. Garcia, you are a true patriot. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.
After our dozens of legislative meetings, my group joined thousands of other teens and adults at the rally outside of the Capitol. As we walked out to join them, chanting “We are MSD, we’re here to make some history,” the crowd erupted into cheers. It took me a moment to realize that they were for us. Like the Red Sea, the crowd parted, and we walked to the center of the field, surrounded on either side by people applauding.
I’ve been saying for a long time now that I want to change the world. I didn’t know it then, but this is what I meant. Today is the day that every NFTY event I’ve ever been to has been preparing me for.
NFTY, you’re one of us now. No matter how directly or indirectly you were affected by what happened here in Parkland, you now have the opportunity to join a movement of people committed to creating a better, safer world.
Register to vote, walk out of your schools, sign petitions, speak to your legislators. Tell them the story of Sen. Garcia, who set aside partisan politics in the interest in representing the voices of his constituents. Tell them the story of my new friend Aria, a freshman from Douglas who saw three of her friends from class lying dead on the ground. Tell them your story, as a Reform Jew who will never stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.
If our leaders don’t change our laws, then we will change our leaders.
We will tell our grandchildren about this one day, NFTY. What will you be able to say?
Hear more about Zoe's trip: