Teen Engagement and the Great Shabbat

USY March For Our Lives

For more than 60 years, USY has been at the forefront for teen engagement in Jewish society throughout all of North America. USY has brought the joy of Judaism to life for teens, inspiring them to deepen their Jewish practice, become leaders, make a positive impact on the world, and develop lasting connections to their Jewish identities.

Like thousands of their peers across the country, the USY community was profoundly impacted by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL on February 14, 2018, especially as many current USYers and alumni (now teachers) were there that day. They immediately expressed interest in participating in March for Our Lives rallies around the country on March 24, a Saturday.

USCJ and USY leadership spent a significant amount of time thinking through this issue and ultimately decided that it was critical to both support our teens' desire to take action to engage with the community in D.C. and our movement's commitment to religious observance, which speaks directly to our value of thriving in the tension of old and new.

USCJ planned a Shabbat experience in D.C., within walking distance of the main rally (USCJ also provided pre-paid metro cards for those who didn’t want to – or couldn’t – walk). Teens prayed and studied relevant texts the night before and met up afterward to process the experience, before davening Maariv and Havadallah. At sibling marches across the country, teens were encouraged to attend according to their personal observance.

Zach Zabib, USY International President, wrote the below following the march.

“Awed. Inspired. Empowered. Hopeful. These are some of the words that came to mind after spending this last Shabbat with USY at March for Our Lives.

I am in awe that I stood with a group of almost two hundred USYers in a crowd of over 800,000 people on Pennsylvania Avenue.

I am inspired by the fact that hundreds more USYers participated in marches across the country.

I am empowered by the fact that when I looked around at March, I saw more people younger than me than older.

I am hopeful, because I know that the March was only the beginning and our generation has the capability to change the world.

When I first heard that this March was being organized, I knew that USY had to get involved. In USY, we constantly learn about social action and tikun olam (repairing the world). We learn of our responsibility as Jews to constantly pursue justice.

When this singular opportunity was presented, an opportunity for our generation to take the lead on this important issue, I knew USY would find itself at the forefront.

Yet, our March experience was different than the other 800,000 people that found their way to DC.

It was Shabbat, and so we had to find a way to juxtapose our values of sanctifying Shabbat with our values of social activism. This tension between being involved and keeping Shabbat completely enhanced our experience.

Our March did not start on Pennsylvania Avenue, rather it started two and a half miles away, right after services at the Adas Israel Congregation in D.C. In the interest of keeping Shabbat, a group of us wanted to walk to the March.

As we walked to the March site we were praised by drivers honking at us and waving their hands. It felt not only as if the older generations were proud of us, but that they were now trusting us to lead the charge.

When we got to the march site on Pennsylvania Avenue we couldn’t take any pictures. Instead, we made memories that would be more impactful than a picture.

We marched behind our banner, singing songs like Ozi V’Zimrat Ya, praising the strength of God, and Oseh Shalom, praying for a day when we would not have to march to ensure the freedom and security of our brothers and sisters in communities across the country.

This past Shabbat was not only special because of the March, but also because it was Shabbat HaGadol, “The Great Shabbat,” the Shabbat before Passover–and these events were not mutually exclusive. On Passover, we are charged with telling the story of the exodus from Egypt.

On this Shabbat, I felt as if our generation was leading the exodus from a world in which the youth had no say, to a safer world we will create. When I was standing in the center of that crowd, I jumped up and saw a sea of people in front of me and behind me. I felt as if we were the chosen people crossing through the Red Sea.

This struggle will not end tomorrow. People in our community and in so many others have been directly affected by gun violence. That is why we continue to fight.

Change may not come tomorrow, next week, or even in November. Like the Children of Israel, who had to endure 40 years in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land, we have a long journey ahead of us as we fight towards our promised land, a safer America.

So what can you do now? Register to vote, if you are old enough, take a stand, and make your voice heard.”

More Reflections from Teens

Name: Michael Pincus

Hometown: West Palm Beach, FL

March location: Washington D.C.

“From spending the weekend with USY, I learned that it’s important to think of my Jewish values whenever I decide to take some sort of action; it’s like a Jewish morality check. Everyone is stronger when they team up with their peers, and that’s what traveling with USY allowed me to do.

The Shabbat experience enhanced my experience of this pivotal social action movement because I realized that even in the darkest of times, Shabbat can give us that piece of mind needed to go out and do things like protest in the streets.”

Name: Izzy Levy

Hometown: Portland, OR

March location: Orlando, FL

“On my sign I wrote ‘Guns have no place in schools’ and on the [other] side I wrote ‘I march with USY’…Even though there wasn’t a USY banner or a huge group of USYers marching with us, I felt like I was marching with USY.

With every USYer across the nation who was marching in their own city. I felt that power, energy and connection to every one of my friends, who are like my second family. I was marching for my life with USY.

I felt strong and powerful and most importantly impactful. Knowing all across the nation there were people marching with me made me know I was a part of something big that could actually make a difference.”

Name: Libby Fern

Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

March location: Washington D.C.

“USY is the community that connected me so closely to the Parkland shooting. Being able to embody the Jewish values I hold so closely to and [that] guide my everyday life while participating in the global movement helped my two worlds collide in an unexpected yet incredible way.”

Name: Julia Freedkin

Hometown: Pearland, TX

March location: Houston, TX

“The most meaningful part of this experience for me was being surrounded by all these people who support the same cause. Seeing everyone’s signs and hearing everyone chant and shout and sometimes even cry, and seeing that while it is so easy to feel powerless in the midst of all this action, we’re not powerless.”

Name: Avi Chesler

Hometown: Huntington, NY

March location: Washington D.C.

“It meant a lot to me to be able to observe Shabbat and take a stand for my beliefs. Being with friends made it much more meaningful and I was not alone. I enjoyed going with a group because I felt like part of a mini-community that was itself a part of a larger community.”

Name: Hadar Pepperstone

Hometown: Syracuse, NY

March location: Washington D.C.

“Spending Shabbat with USY enhanced my experience of the march by clearly connecting it to my Judaism. I never felt that I was wrestling these two desires of mine, both to be Jewish and participate in this movement, because they worked together and I wouldn’t have experienced one the same way without the other.”

Name: Samantha Brody

Hometown: Chicago, IL

March location: Chicago, IL

“Being with my friends and standing in solidarity with them was an amazing experience, and knowing that I was part of a movement which had my back was part of what made me want to attend the march in the first place.”

Name: Eliza Oren

Hometown: Westport, CT

March location: Washington D.C.

“The March for Our Lives was one of the most empowering events I had ever witnessed. It made it even more special to attend with USY. I had the chance to talk to kids all around the country about their communities…We also talked about how Judaism relates to the subject of gun control and gun violence. It was really cool how we connected modern day messages to certain parts of the Torah. The march itself was the single most awe-inspiring event I have ever attended, and it was awesome how I was able to march beside passionate USY teens.”

Name: Hallel Shapiro Franklin

Hometown: New Haven, CT

March location: Washington D.C.

“We prayed with our feet this weekend. We stood together and took part in something truly amazing. Among the posters and the people listening to children pleading for our lives, I felt empowered and proud to be part of a generation that wasn’t going to be silenced and wouldn’t allow themselves to go back to sleep and forget.”

Name: Ava Glick

Hometown: Westport, CT

March location: Washington D.C.

“Attending the March for Our Lives with USY was the most meaningful, motivating, and inspiring experience of my life. Going into the event, I was excited to make a change. However, it’s hard to truly recognize the magnitude of the issue and the power of the event until you are standing in a crowd of a million people, all of whom feel the same way you do about making this country a safer place.

Everyone was united in their hope for the future and strong belief that a change needs to be made for the safety of the current and all future generations…Attending the March for Our Lives was incredible in and of itself, but being part of it with USY made it that much more special.

To be part of such a historic event with other people my age, other people that think and feel the same way I do, made it all the more meaningful.

On the walk back to the synagogue we stayed at after the March, I discussed with other USYers how amazing it felt to be part of history. We soon realized that, as amazing as it felt, we shouldn’t have been so excited to make a change because there shouldn’t have been a change that needed to be made.

As we arrived back at the synagogue, we were grateful to have been part of history, but also knew that we would have to work our hardest to ensure that this nation never needs to hold another march again.

I went into the March hopeful that a change would be made. I left the March empowered that I, along with my peers, would be part of the generation that makes that change.”

USCJ is proud of the USY’s young people and their stories of teen engagement and budding leadership during the March for Our Lives event in our nation’s capital. USY has been the youth movement within USCJ and continues to show the strength of our young future leaders.


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