Today, Dec. 14th, I am thankful that my father is alive. I am thankful that at the moment he heard that gunshot in our small sanctuary, his instincts told him to shield himself and others in a closet he didn’t even know existed.
Not everyone was so lucky, however. Although my dad was able to survive, 11 others were murdered that day at Tree of Life, the synagogue in Pittsburgh where my family’s congregation, New Light, also meets. Thousands more are killed every year because of a terrible scourge in our society—guns. This horrific hate crime that occurred at the synagogue six weeks ago was not an isolated incident.
Six years ago today, Dec. 14th, a shooting occurred in another innocent place of learning, the Sandy Hook elementary school. Following this horrific attack where twenty first-graders and six teachers were murdered, there were many discussions on the national stage about how to prevent such an attack from occurring again. Despite these discussions, there have been countless attacks since, even one this past February in another place of learning in Parkland, Florida.
2012 was the first time I ever felt the impact of gun violence. Reuven Rahamin, the father of one of my sister’s childhood friends, Sami, was killed during an attack on his store in Minnesota. Although I was only 12 at the time and only, very loosely connected to the incident, I felt personally impacted, not just because it was another Jew affected but because it was someone who was part of my own community. I saw Sami emerge as a gun control activist, speaking to large crowds and saying #enoughisenough. I admired that action and was inspired that change was coming. Six years later, however, the same hashtag is still trending, popping up whenever a mass shooting occurs.
The day I flew back to Pittsburgh to be with my family after the attack this past October was election day in Israel, where I am studying for the year. It felt so surreal to walk around and see that on every block there were people canvassing in the streets, parties, and barbecues, all celebrating the fact that we have sovereignty in a democratic nation where we have the privilege and obligation to vote. On voting day in Israel, school and work is canceled so that voters have full access to the polls which are open from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. It felt odd to me that here I was in a country where people are excited about democracy with an 80 percent turnout rate on average, whereas in the U.S half that rate is considered high.
Americans do not feel that. same sense of responsibility. Before the attack in Pittsburgh, I was working with Democrats Abroad to help register people to vote in Israel. I was surprised to see that even when I handed people absentee ballots and offered to mail it for them, people still refused. One of the largest issues I see today is that Americans don’t feel empowered enough to vote or are unable because of inaccessibility and voter disenfranchisement. Our responsibility is to change that mentality and show people that their voices matter and they need to speak up.
It’s safe to say that most people don’t want to be killed by gun violence. Everything past that point in the political conversation about guns, however, becomes divisive. While I have felt so supported by the actions of those around me both in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, I feel that what our country truly needs right now is common sense gun laws to prevent future massacres. I hope that other Americans, not only the survivors and family in Pittsburgh, will commit to a long-term fight not only in the weeks or months after the attack but even years if that’s how long it takes to fix the problem.
Yael Perlman, daughter of Rabbi Perlman of New Light Congregation, is currently studying in Jerusalem for a gap year before college. She is an advocate for gun control.