About 450 people from across the area came to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park on Feb. 19 and filled the sanctuary in anticipation of a speech by a Jewish 10th-grade student.
That 10th-grader was Samara Barrack, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, which left 17 students dead and 17 others wounded. She spoke as part of “Taking Action: One Year Later,” a gun violence prevention event organized by KIFTY, KI’s chapter of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth group organization.
“I just want the world to know what I went through because I want them to feel something,” said Barrack, who wore a red sweatshirt with “#DouglasStrong” emblazoned across the front. “I want them to be touched by something so they know what it’s like.”
Speakers included 10th-grader Zoe Freedman, who introduced Barrack; 10th-grader Sydnee Ostroff, who shared statistics of gun violence; and freshman Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-District 4), who gave an overview of the gun control legislation she introduced to Congress on Jan. 30. A group of students also sang at the event.
Barrack shared her experience of the shooting and how students at her school have since struggled with trauma and depression.
That day began normally for her. She was reading The Catcher in the Rye in her fourth-period class when gunshots rang out, and she dropped her book.
The students knew what to do because of the school’s active shooter drills. She and her classmates crowded behind the teacher’s desk in the corner. She heard gunshots “like pots and pans banging against each other,” screams from students in other classrooms and shouts of “Put your hands up!”
Those shouts were from officers who had arrived at the scene. But Barrack thought they were a group of shooters in the building.
When those officers broke down her classroom door, she thought she was about to die.
The officers escorted the students out and instructed them to keep their eyes forward. Students looked down anyway, and Barrack glimpsed bodies and bullets on the ground. The air was full of smoke.
“That was it for some people,” Barrack said. “That was it for a lot of my friends. I knew seven of the victims.”
She is surrounded at school by daily reminders of the tragedy. Students and teachers sometimes break out into sobs. In one of her classes, she sits next to a student who was shot.
“It was an accomplishment to even go back to school,” Barrack said. “A lot of people transferred schools because the environment of the school was so different. Not even just the environment, the people changed. My friendships changed. I’m not friends with my best friends anymore, and I’d rather be friends with freshmen because they’re not depressed and they’re not on antidepressants.”
Later in the event, Dean spoke about her bill, the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which would prohibit the possession of a firearm that is undetectable by airport-level detection devices.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, close to 16,000 people were killed and more than 28,000 were injured by firearms in 2018.
“What’s awful is we’re no longer surprised,” Dean said. “Think about it. This week, we marked the anniversary of the Parkland horrific tragedy and massacre, and then on Friday, the day after the Parkland anniversary, we watched another horrific mass shooting unfold at a company in Aurora, Ill. Six dead, including the shooter, and at least seven wounded. Just another day in America.”
Rachel Eisenman, an 11th-grader and co-president of KIFTY, said the group of teens organized the gun control prevention event in about two weeks.
“Me and my friends, we really did that. We pulled that off,” Eisenman said. “We were really proud of ourselves and all the work we had done.”
In mid-January, Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler, director of religious education, took the synagogue’s confirmation class on its annual trip to Washington, D.C., as part of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s L’Taken Seminar. There the students chose to lobby their representatives for gun violence prevention, and one student, Freedman, shared her version of events from the Parkland shooting.
It was a story Freedman shared again at the event on Feb. 19, when she introduced her camp friend, Barrack. On Feb. 14, 2018, when Freedman heard about the shooting, she had texted Barrack, wanting to see if she was OK.
“Three hours,” Freedman said. “Three hours I sat, staring at my phone, waiting, waiting for that one notification telling me she was alive.”
At a KIFTY meeting in early February, Rigler suggested to the students that they should organize an event honoring Parkland.
The students got to work organizing the event, with guidance from Rigler and others. Freedman reached out to Barrack about speaking at the event, while Ostroff wrote to Dean’s office. Shayna Saltzburg, KIFTY’s membership vice president, set up the RSVP form. The KIFTY teens contacted local youth group advisers, Jewish educational directors and CeaseFirePA, which tabled at the event. They made their own flyers and press releases.
“I want my teens, who are post-B’nai Mitzvah, to know that their responsibilities and opportunities as Jews in America begin at age 13,” Rigler said. “For them, they were able to truly live out what it means to be a modern Jewish teenager. They were able to speak out for justice, they were able to give voice to suffering and they were able to take action to save a life or save many lives, and they did that all in a Jewish context.”