Some Jewish Schools, Students Skip U.S. Gun-control Walkout Due to Its Links With Women’s March

Move follows scandal involving leading member of movement and renowned anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan: ‘It made it difficult for us to identify with that enterprise,’ admits one school principal

Students rallying outside Heschel High School in midtown Manhattan, March 14, 2018.
Elana Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – As hundreds of thousands of students around the United States walked out of schools Wednesday morning calling for gun-control legislation, some Jewish schools and students didn’t participate as the protest had initially been planned by the Women’s March movement.

It’s the latest fallout from the controversy involving Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory, who attended a virulently anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ speech by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan last month, and the Women’s March leaders who didn’t apologize for her actions in a subsequent statement.

While most Jewish high schools around the United States allowed their students to participate in the demonstrations on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland high school shootings, SAR Academy in the Bronx did not.

Until the Farrakhan scandal broke last week, SAR students had planned to walk out Wednesday. But when Mallory’s association with Farrakhan became news, “it made it difficult for us to identify with that enterprise,” said Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principal of the Modern Orthodox high school.

“We felt that the leadership of the Women’s March didn’t sufficiently dissociate themselves from someone who’s anti-Semitic,” he told Haaretz.

Video of students' protest in Brooklyn

The school administration came to that conclusion first, and then met with student organizers who agreed, he said.

Instead, the 540 students at SAR will hold a rally against gun violence on Monday. “The optics” of the Women’s March’s association with Farrakhan made it impossible for SAR to participate Wednesday, Harcsztark said. “Their message is being understood.”

Heschel High School, a pluralistic Jewish high school in midtown Manhattan, left it up to students and faculty whether to participate.

The overwhelming majority of the 280-student school walked out and gathered on the street outside, joined by students from other nearby schools. Heschel students chanted “Action action, we want action!” and sang the American antiwar folk song “If I Had a Hammer.”

A Heschel student – a senior who asked not to be named – was one of about 20 students who chose not to walk out. While she said she’d felt uncomfortable with what she saw as the political nature of the plans even before the Farrakhan issue came up, that development made her decision clear, she told Haaretz.

Students from Middle School 51 in Brooklyn holding up a memorial on March 14 for Jaime Guttenberg, the Jewish teen who was one of 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner

“Them going to applaud Farrakhan when he spoke such blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric makes me feel very uncomfortable,” she said. “It put me over the edge. I can’t support something knowing their leaders support people who are anti-Semitic.”

At the all-school assembly that followed the student walkout, the senior read aloud a translation of El Malei Rachamim (a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead).

The assembly was a memorial for the 17 Parkland, Florida students and teachers killed by suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Stoneman Douglas High School last month.

The student said she didn’t want to be named because “I’m aware of how tense and polarizing our environment is right now, and I fear somebody who’s really angry might attack me. I fear a backlash.”

Most students at Golda Och Academy – a Jewish day school in West Orange, New Jersey – walked out Wednesday morning.

Students from Middle School 51 in Brooklyn during the school walkout calling for gun-control legislation, March 14, 2018.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner

The day started with a memorial service after daily morning prayers, said Maya Wasserman, a junior there. Then there was a rally, with several students giving short speeches, and it concluded with everyone singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Not all of the 120 students in Golda Och’s middle and high schools participated, Wasserman said. About 20 chose not to because of the Women’s March’s association with Farrakhan. Instead, they stayed inside the school building and had a discussion, she added.

In Brooklyn, young middle-school students – ages 11 through 14 – participated in a school walkout at M.S. 51. Rabbi Rachel Timoner from Congregation Beth Elohim has a son studying there. She went to support the hundreds of students who walked out of school and held up signs urging stronger gun laws.

At the rally, held behind the school, New York City Councilman Brad Lander, who is Jewish, said: “The young people of this country have had enough of gun violence. The young people of this country say enough! Because the young people of this country say never again, call bs, demand change, demand common-sense gun laws, because the young people of this country will not accept politics as usual,” he said.

“This is a powerful movement. You can feel it building,” he continued. “Young people right now are building a movement that is making change. It might not come tomorrow, but it is coming. We can see it here and all across the country. Change is coming.”

Asked about her support of the school walkouts and their connection to the Women’s March, Timoner told Haaretz, “Farrakhan’s despicable and outrageous anti-Semitism is not new. What this moment offers is a long overdue reckoning about anti-Semitism on the left.

“But we can do two things at once,” she added. “We can and must reckon with anti-Semitism in progressive movements for change, while also continuing to work together for human rights, safety and dignity – such as by supporting these youths who are demanding to be safe at school.”

One of the students in her synagogue’s Hebrew school was an organizer of his private school’s mass walkout today.

Sam Levine, 14, is a freshman at Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn Heights: Levine and other Packer students organized a massive demonstration at Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza, involving students from several public and private high schools, as well as Brooklyn Law School.

The rally, attended by some 2,000 participants, included 17 minutes’ silence to honor the memory of those killed in Parkland, as well as speeches by the borough president and other local politicians.

The connection to the Women’s March wasn’t discussed during the rally planning stage, Levine told Haaretz. “We’ve not been associated with them. Because someone is involved in a cause like equal rights for women does not dictate what else they believe in,” he said.

Levine says he felt motivated by what he’s learning in his ninth-grade Hebrew school class at Congregation Beth Elohim, where the curriculum is devoted to community-organizing. What he’s learned through his Jewish education is shaping his activism on issues like gun control and school safety, he said.

“Jewish values are definitely about helping others, and very much about peace and equality, which make me feel connected” to issues like this, he told Haaretz at the Cadman Plaza rally.

“My Judaism has an impact and has caused me to be very passionate,” he added.