Yesterday was the 30 of Shvat, the fifth yahrzeit of Alyssa Alhadeff who was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. The Hebrew date is evident on the photo of her tombstone on her mother Lori Alhadeff’s Twitter account so this is an appropriate time to reflect on the lives lost, how we can help those who survive, and how to change our laws so America does not have to continue to be the “most violent country in the Western world” according to writer Paul Auster, in his new book on gun violence in America, Bloodbath Nation.
At the recent trial of the shooter who killed 17 souls and injured 17 five years ago, families had an opportunity to make statements that would reflect on the impact the loss of their family member has had. One of the most honest of these came from Linda Wang whose son Peter was killed at age 15. “I don’t know how to use language to express the pain of losing my oldest son, Peter,” his mother said in a statement read at the shooter’s trial. “I have four tattoos of Peter on my body. I get one every year on Feb. 14 to symbolize that he is still with me.” The sense of need to keep a dead loved one, one who should still be in the world, as close as possible by marking one’s skin is palpable in the indescribable pain over her loss that Ms. Wang embodies.
The grief is most acute for those who have lost family members, but on the yahrzeit of some of those who were killed in an event that sparked a nationwide movement, the March for Our Lives, by survivors, it is appropriate also to reflect on how gun violence impacts so many segments of our society.
I personally am struggling with how to write a victim impact statement in advance of the upcoming trial for the shooter in Pittsburgh who killed 11 Jews, including three from New Light, the synagogue my husband is the rabbi for in Squirrel Hill. I think, primarily, that it is not a feasible assignment to envelop the horror of the event and how it has impacted myself and my family in words, as Ms. Wang astutely said. There is no way a short group of words can contain the sleepless nights, horrific images, sadness, and loneliness of those who experienced the viciousness of the crime and those who must live without cherished loved ones by their sides. There is no vessel for the pain that a bereft spouse or child feels without their loved one to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries with, or a youngster who will never remember his grandfather.
Beyond the direct impact on families of victims, “10 to 20 percent of the surrounding populace will suffer a diagnosable traumatic response to a mass shooting,” according to the Washington Post. Paul Auster in Bloodbath Nation explains, “The vast brigade of lives touched by the presence of a single person who lives or has lived among them -meaning that the number of Americans directly or indirectly marked by gun violence every year must be tallied in the millions.”
There is a negative economic impact on the entire area where gun violence occurs as well. According to an Urban Institute on shootings in Washington, D.C., “Every 10 additional gunshots in a census tract each year is associated with 20 fewer jobs among new establishments, one less new business opening, and one more business closing the same year.” There is truly no way to measure the fear and anxiety, as well as the economic impact that being connected to a mass shooting generates.
It is traditional to give to charity on a yahrzeit in honor of the deceased. The families of the 17 Parkland victims established charities in their names. One can give to help at-risk underserved children attend summer camp in memory of Jewish teacher Scott Beigel who loved camp himself and died while opening a classroom door to save his students. The family of Jaime Guttenberg hosts the Orange Ribbons for Jaime which gives out college scholarships and dance scholarships as well as meals for those affected by gun violence in places like Uvalde, TX and Buffalo, NY and has a new initiative Paws of Love to provide dogs that give emotional support to families of those affected by gun violence. The family of Alex Schachter started Safe Schools for Alex in order to “provide the most current school safety best practices and resources to students, parents, school districts and law enforcement. ” His father Max retired early to devote himself to the cause of school safety. Meadow Pollack’s family started Meadow’s Movement to prevent school shootings and stop loss of lives once they start. Finally, Alyssa Alhadeff’s family has started Make our Schools Safe to give teachers panic buttons connected to law enforcement in every classroom.
It is moving to see how these families have taken something awful and tried to find a way to have meaning from it and encourage others to be involved with these causes that help them find meaning as well. As Tony Montalto, the father of Gina, says, “The foundation is a way to help keep Gina’s light shining by helping others attain their goals.” He added, “The loss of a child never leaves you. The best we can hope for is to find a way to work around that pain every day.”
Yesterday was the thirtieth of Shvat and also Rosh Hodesh Adar, the celebration of the new month of Adar when we celebrate Purim, which has been called the “the holiday of human action” by Professor Wendy Zierler . Though it is easy to feel helpless in the face of so much evil in the world from gun violence and other causes, we need to remember that our goal in Adar, and every day is to act in ways which defeat Amalek. Amalek attacked those from behind, the sick and the weak (Deuteronomy 25:18); we need to create a society in which all are safe both physically and psychologically.
The beauty of the story of the Megillah, as I have written previously in the Wisdom Daily is that Esther has power throughout the story – the difference comes in Esther, Chapter Four, when she decides that she is capable of using it.
Likewise, the best way to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting on their yahrzeit is to take the power we have both by supporting causes that will end gun violence and asking our political leaders for change. May all of their souls be elevated on this day, and all days.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Tablet, the Forward, 929English and Haaretz, among others. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.