At the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the corner of Columbus Boulevard and Spruce Street, it looked like a typical children’s park on a Saturday morning.
Kids rolled down the green hills, dotted with clumps of leftover snow hidden behind trees; some threw snowballs into the air, which landed down below upon mismatched strollers.
The smiling children, whose parents brought them to the local version of the March for Our Lives movement, provided a stark contrast with those whose lives had been impacted by the horrors of gun violence. All told, tens of thousand of people massed for the march through Philadelphia, part of a nationwide protest spurred by the Feb. 14 mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Participants gathered at Fifth and Market streets early March 24 and marched toward Penn’s Landing, where a series of speakers took the podium to a sea of protesters holding “Never Again” and “#Enough” signs.
It was just one of 800 sister marches in cities across the country showing support alongside the 800,000-plus gathering in Washington, D.C. — possibly the largest single-day protest in the history of the nation’s capital.
Before the Philadelphia march, a group of more than 50 people, mostly young students, gathered at Society Hill Synagogue for a mix of songs, prayers and student-led speeches.
Teenagers — mainly Camp Galil campers — filled the pews of the 179-year-old building, where 15-year-old Maya Vaughn gave a speech she delivered at the March 14 school walkout at New Hope-Solebury High School.
“Students should be writing college admission essays, not eulogies for their classmates,” she shared. “I should be writing my next English paper, not a speech to wake up our country.”
Vaughn said she initially felt nervous to form the words, but they flowed out in mere minutes.
Sharing her speech during the walkout was humbling, she recalled, seeing 300 of her classmates pause their day to listen and mourn.
She and her friends planned the walkout “to make people recognize and have them listen and not just forget.”
Camp Galil, which she’s attended for eight summers, impacted her activism, she said, by “teaching me to speak up for what I believe in and not be silenced, and lead by example and show people that it’s our generation that needs to do the fixing.”
“If nobody else stands up, then who will?” she asked.
Kerren Matthews, 18, and Halle Cooper, 17, both seniors at Lower Merion High School, will be first-year staffers this summer at Camp Galil. Matthews remembered being taught in her elementary school classroom how to hide in her cubby in case of a shooter.
They’ve both grown up in such an environment in every classroom they’ve encountered, and now will be responsible to practice the same drills for the incoming campers.
The reality of hiding in cubbies or under desks didn’t hit Matthews until recent years. “After Sandy Hook, I remember coming home and my mom giving me a hug,” she said. “That was the first time I realized why we do those drills.”
Although a summer camp, she said Camp Galil taught them “how to be better humans.”
“We teach [campers] to question society and to think more deeply about the world around us,” she said. “That has been a huge part of my Jewish upbringing and why I get involved in these things.”
“My family’s never been very religious,” added Cooper, “but Galil has given [me] a cultural side to Judaism and more of an actual way to use it in society and use it for activism.”
Matthews noted they are on the older side of young students who attended the march, so she feels a responsibility to help younger ones get involved.
Plenty of younger people were there, like 13-year-old Evelyn Feldman alongside her 11-year-old brother, Jacob.
Evelyn simplified the gun control debate and the reason she attended the march with her parents, Hope and Matt, and other Congregation Rodeph Shalom congregants: “There are school shootings, and we’re in school. It affects us.”
“And it’s horrific,” chimed in Jacob. “And it’s not like [the students] did anything wrong.”
The siblings felt empowered by the surrounding youths, knowing the protests wouldn’t have happened without all of them.
“It still brings a lot of voices to our community,” Jacob said.
“It’s just sad it didn’t happen sooner before something bad happened,” Evelyn added.
Lindsay Shuster, 15, came with the Rodeph Shalom group because she said the climate around guns has gotten to a point where students no longer feel safe.
“Enough is enough,” she said, with a yarmulke atop her head. “[The Parkland shooting] didn’t scare me; it just more so upset me. It did empower me to stand up and go out and protest.”
She also participated in the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School walkout on Broad Street, where she felt inspired by the student-led protest.
“A school-led [protest] would be more regulated and less free. But if it’s student-led, there’s chance, there’s marches, there’s more freedom,” Shuster noted.
Nearby in the crowd, another handful of young students from a synagogue joined the march with their rabbi, though it did require a change of plans.
Rabbi Yael Romer of Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley in Kingston, N.Y., brought the group of teens to Philadelphia for a scheduled confirmation trip, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate in the march.
“After what happened with all the shootings, we decided to come to the march instead of going to synagogue,” 14-year-old Sofia Williams explained.
Romer called it the “praying with our feet” method.
Other students held handmade signs; some tallying school shooters who all used AR-15s, others simply complying with the common #Enough, followed in Hebrew with Dayenu.
“I was taught to ask questions and not to just take what I was given and run with it,” Williams said, “but to take what I was given and question why I’m doing it. So when all this stuff is going down and I’m told to just sit and let it happen, I don’t think that’s OK.
“I’m questioning why, and I want to stop it and change it.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0737