History was made in Great Neck on March 24, as a much larger than expected crowd filled Jonathan L. Ielpi Firefighters Park on Grace Avenue for the March for Our Lives rally organized by North Shore Action and sponsored by a coalition of bipartisan and interfaith groups.
Nearly 500 people, who came out to enjoy the sun and support local students, teachers, clergy and community leaders, brought homemade and printed signs, orange ribbons and tremendous passion for the cause: to make our schools and society safer from the threat of gun violence.
A new generation of students has become energized and empowered since the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, FL. In the past six weeks, Great Neck students have followed the lead of the survivors of the Feb. 14 tragedy by organizing walkouts and rallies, and raising their voices. Most of the student activists are not old enough to vote, buy a beer or rent a car, though in many states, they can easily obtain a firearm.
Young people are increasingly vocal about how the prevalence of gun violence is affecting their daily lives, especially at school, where their new reality includes “active shooter drills” on a regular basis, and the real fear and anxiety of becoming victims themselves. The student activism has already changed gun laws in several states and has persuaded giant retailers, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger, and major airlines, to stop selling guns and end ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Statistics show that 90 percent of people younger than 25 killed by guns in high-income countries are from the U.S. But even as mass-shooting deaths have escalated, the issue of gun control has remained a “third rail” issue because of the Second Amendment.
Student activists are looking to elected leaders to make a change. When it comes to gun violence, they believe it is time for action, not thoughts and prayers. Most Americans agree with this sentiment, though everyone does not agree on what form the action should take. Will it include a ban or restrictions on gun sales? National background checks? Increased police protection at schools? Now is the time to have the discussion and implement changes.
Students Took Center Stage
Like the Parkland student activists we see every day on television, Great Neck students are motivated, optimistic, passionate and well informed. Their detractors may call them idealistic and even disrespectful, but the students are undeterred and united in their goal: to live in a better world and to go to safer schools, without the fear of violence. They believe their future is at stake and that the “adults in the room” have failed them.
After decades of ineffectual efforts to pass gun-control legislation, many believe it is time to listen to the younger generation. History has shown us that social change is often effectuated by youth movements that may appear messy, imperfect and naive. But with social media savvy and the energy of millions of followers online, it seems that the cultural zeitgeist is moving towards real change, as recently displayed with #MeToo and other calls for reform.
Talia Katz, a Great Neck South High School student leader, spoke with conviction about the need for gun control.
“This is not a partisan issue. We just want to be safe,” said Katz. “This is not an attack on the constitution. This is a demand for our unalienable rights. Even though we are in high school, as citizens of this nation, we are still entitled to our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights should not be taken away from us in minutes or even seconds. In schools, the place where students should feel most safe, we now feel the most vulnerable. The school walls have begun to close in on many of us, and while we understand completely it is for our safety, it is hard to forget that locking us in is not the answer. I believe guns are the problem. We can no longer sit idly by while other people make decisions about our lives and we watch as our country continues to have the highest mass-shooting rates in the world. There is no topic as important as the safety of our nation.”
Oliver Pour, a senior at Great Neck North High School and president of the student body, gave a rousing address to the crowd about the emotional toll of gun violence at school.
“I am proud to represent a student body that is over 1,100 strong,” said Pour. “Each one of us comes from a different walk of life, with a different story. But every day, at 8 a.m., we converge onto one place, where we are one family, one voice. At 10 a.m. on March 14, we, the students of Great Neck North, walked out, in silence and with conviction and solidarity. On that day, we commanded the country’s airwaves, Twitter feeds and Snapchat stories. We were the news, because we collectively decided that Enough Is Enough. We collectively decided that we do not feel safe in our schools. We collectively decided that gun laws have to change. How many more kids have to die before we could stop saying ‘Never Again! Enough Is Enough!’ My North family does not feel safe in our schools. We cannot go on, in sheer anxiety, scared that we are next. Our parents can not kiss us goodbye every morning, in a state of silent panic, wondering if this is the last time they’ll see us. School is where we need to feel safe. We do not. We, the students, stand strong across the country. We have a voice. And we want to be heard. And our message is ‘Enough Is Enough.’”
Interfaith Leaders Call for Action
Several members of the clergy were featured speakers at the event, including Rabbi Gordon Yaffe and Reverend Canon Joseph S. Pae.
“A rally on Shabbat?,” Rabbi Tara Feldman of Temple Beth-El, who just returned from a trip to Israel, asked herself. “Just back from Jerusalem, I am making an extra effort to uphold the sanctity of the Sabbath. Should I, as a rabbi, be coming out [to the rally]? Absolutely! For as a Jew, I know that the obligation to save a life (piku’ach nefesh) supersedes the observance of Shabbat. And that is why we are here. We are here to save lives. On this Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath which precedes Passover, we remember that the key ingredients for liberation, for change, for transformation is the ability to open one’s heart, the capacity for courageous outrage and moral clarity.”
Father Pae stressed our common human dignity in the quest for a more peaceful world.
“I want to talk about something that is often forgotten in our society: dignity, dignity of human beings,” said Pae. “Do we, as a society, strive to respect the dignity of every human being? I mean everybody—not only the popular, the successful, the wealthy and the powerful. Regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of your accent, regardless of your status. Everybody. Dignity is not something you earn. Dignity is not something you buy. Dignity cannot be taken away. Dignity is given as a gift. We are born with it as we are created in the image of God. Unfortunately, our society has many voices that say otherwise, making us feeling less than others, feeling excluded, feeling inadequate. Your dignity is not dependent on your report cards, what college you went to, how much you make, what kind of job you have, what kind of cars you drive, how big your home is, where you live or what kind of family you come from. In order to make that kind of society, you need to know a few things: You are important. You are precious. You are enough. Let me repeat that. You are important, you are precious, you are enough.”
Great Neck resident Lois Schaffer, author of The Unthinkable: Life, Loss and a Mother’s Mission to Ban Illegal Guns, was especially moving. Since tragically losing her daughter Susie to gun violence, she has devoted her life to protecting human rights.
“Gun violence is a cancer on our society that is growing unchecked,” she said in her heart-wrenching memoir. “A single bullet can extinguish the life of an innocent person. This is America, supposedly a humane society, and yet we witness tragic deaths daily due to gun violence.”
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli energized the crowd with his speech. While introducing him, North Shore Action president Veronica Lurvey discussed DiNapoli’s youth, when he won his first election in 1972, becoming the first 18 year old in New York State to hold public office.
Rally Speakers and Sponsors
In addition to the student advocates who led the rally, North Shore Action invited speakers from both sides of the political aisle and interfaith communities. In order of appearance, speakers were Beth Friedmann and Veronica Lurvey, presidents of North Shore Action and emcees; Jacob Lurvey, a junior at Schechter School of Long Island and president of the Great Neck USY Chapter, who led the Pledge of Allegiance; Alexa Tubian, a Great Neck North senior, who led the National Anthem and performed “Rise Up”; middle school students Sabrina Namigohar, Joane Sarfati and Hannah Sutin, who recited the names of the slain Parkland, FL, victims; Rebecca Sassouni, Great Neck Board of Education trustee; Oliver Pour, Great Neck North High student body president; Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan, Supervisor Judi Bosworth and Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio; Thomas DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller; Grace Meng, United States Congress; Rabbi Tara Feldman of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck; Rabbi Gordon Yaffe, founder of Interfaith Community Action Committee of Eastern Queens and Western Nassau County; Rev. Canon Joseph S. Pae, All Saints Episcopal Church and Great Neck Episcopal Ministry; Sandy Lubert, a retired Great Neck Public Schools teacher; Matt Wigler, a Great Neck North graduate; Talia Katz, a Great Neck South High sophomore; and Lois Schaffer, a gun-control activist and author.
Event sponsors included All Saints Episcopal Church and Great Neck Episcopal Ministry, Great Neck Democratic Club, Great Neck Republican Committee & Club, Interfaith Community Action Committee of Eastern Queens and Western Nassau County, Lake Success Jewish Center, North Hempstead Democratic Committee, North Shore Action, Reach Out America and Samuel Field Y.
In her concluding remarks, Lurvey promised the students: “The eloquence and strength we have seen on this stage displayed by our students has been tremendous. And, on behalf of all of us here, I pledge to you: We adults will listen, because you are the leaders here and you will be a force to be reckoned with. You will register to vote, you will not stop marching and rallying, speaking and demanding that something be done.”
She continued, “This is when we need our elected officials of every party to listen and act. Not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. There are going to be some big elections in November and we will be electing leaders on this issue—not followers, leaders. We will remember who voted to keep our schools safe and who was afraid of the gun lobby. Looking these students in the eyes, we pledge today that we will not be afraid. For their sake, go in peace and with the hope that next year at this time, there will be no need for another rally.”
Great Neck resident Jacqueline Harounian is a frequent contributor to the Great Neck Record and a member of the steering committee of North Shore Action, which organized the March for Our Lives Rally in Great Neck.