Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Thursday, February 22, 2018 / 7 Adar 5778
After the Parkland, Florida Shooting
An Open Letter to Portland Area Middle School, High School and College Students
You may not know me, but I want to help you do what my generation was unable to accomplish. I want to assist you as you work to reduce school shootings. I hope you will read this letter to the end. It is worth your time.
My name is David Kosak. I am the senior rabbi at Congregation Neveh Shalom. It is the largest Jewish congregation in Portland, Oregon. Our name is Hebrew, and can be translated as Oasis of Peace. I suspect that most religious communities aspire to be oases of peace.
Schools are also meant to be oases of peace, safe places where you can focus on academics, nurture extra-curricular activities and passions, and develop wonderful friendships.
Ever since the Columbine High School massacre, almost 19 years ago, however, our schools can no longer claim to be safe spaces.
I don’t mean to alarm you. I am not saying that your school administrators aren’t doing all within their power to keep you safe. Many preventative measures have been taken. In addition, school personnel are trained in how to respond when the unthinkable happens and an active shooter appears. Local police are also trained in best methods to end an active shooting situation as fast as possible.
What I am saying is that school shootings are random and very hard to predict. That means that every school faces risk. Statistically, the risk is small. Only a very small number of schools are attacked, and the number of students who are injured or killed is small when compared to the total number of students in school throughout this country.
But that doesn’t matter.
You and I know that the psychological risk is large. It’s scary.
We understand the moral obligation to end these attacks on our schools is absolute.
We know in our heart of hearts that any student who dies from a mass shooting is one too many.
And we know this has been going on long enough.
Last week, I wrote about the latest school shooting, in Parkland, Florida. You can find it here.
Since then, two things have happened.
I have watched and been deeply moved as teenagers from Stoneman Douglas High have begun to raise their voices to our political leaders. Good for them! This is something new.
The other event is that my oldest son turned 13. He is about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. That is the Jewish coming of age ceremony. It is a big deal for him, and a big deal for me as his father.
As I think about his future, I am saddened. If anything happened to him, I would be devastated. And yet…
My generation has not done enough to address gun violence in school. We have fallen short. We have failed you.
Every generation gets some things right. Every generation improves some parts of society. But they can’t fix everything. Some problems can only be fixed by the next generation.
For my generation and those older, conversations about gun violence in our society have always been viewed through the lens of a “culture war.”
Some people view the second amendment, and its right to bear arms, as sacred. They often believe that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Some of them claim that we already have reasonable gun control laws, and the fact that we still have mass shootings means that laws won’t correct that. They point out how cities like Chicago have some of the toughest current gun control laws–and many shootings. Therefore, many of them hold that the best way to keep you safe is to arm more people. It’s probably fair to say that a good percentage of these people also believe we need guns to protect ourselves from the government and from violent neighbors.
Other people believe that guns kill people. They either aren’t committed to the second amendment, don’t believe that it permits automatic weapons, or believe that even though Americans have a right to bear arms, society also has the responsibility to protect its citizens–and its children–by means of stricter gun control laws. They hold that the only explanation for the much higher rate of mass shootings in America than other countries is the greater number of guns we have. They refer to one careful study after another to prove their point of view.
Because we see guns in these different ways, we have been unable to generate a voice and an approach that could unite Democrats and Republicans, those who live in cities, and those who reside in more rural areas. Every time an attempt has been made to address gun violence, it has failed because of this division, and because of those who like the status quo and have the power to keep us from changing.
We need you to find a third way. We need you to continue to raise up your voices in every city and town in America. We need you to own this problem because it is beyond the adults.
If you march, and protest, and meet your legislators, you will be heard.
If you remain persistent and don’t give up, you will be heard.
Your activism can shame us adults to take action.
But all of this will take time.
There will be set-backs. There will be resistance. You will have to manage your impatience, because real change always takes time, and youth is always impatient. DON’T GIVE UP. We need you.
HERE’S WHAT I CAN DO TO HELP YOU
As a local area rabbi, I am involved in much interfaith work and have relationships with many community leaders. I can connect you into these different communities–Muslim, Jewish, Christian and beyond. That will help you reach more people. It will amplify your voice. It will increase the speed at which you can shame us adults to take action to protect you.
If you are marching, I will do all in my power to march with you. Send me the invite, and I’ll work hard to clear my schedule and join you.
I will be a sounding board for you.
As your local movement grows and needs more resources, I will connect you to people who may be willing to support your efforts financially.
And here’s a warning: something has begun.
We are starting to listen to your voices now. That means that you now have the responsibility to make sure that the adults don’t stop listening, even when the cameras turn off. Because if you let us ignore you, then you will discover in five or ten or fifteen years that you are also one of the generations that has failed to address gun violence in our schools.
Take your righteous anger, your pain, your fear, your hopes, your youth. Use them. Change this country for the better. You can do it. I believe in you.
In love and support as we grieve together,
Rabbi David Kosak