The Massacre Generation

October 23, 2019Rabbi Seth M. Limmer

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer made the following remarks on Kol Nidre 5780 at Chicago Sinai Congregation. His remarks were originally posted on Chicago Sinai Congregation's website

I have the honor of speaking on this most sacred of evenings. Tonight however, I want to share this pulpit with people who don’t share my privilege, but whose wisdom needs, nevertheless, to be heard in our sanctuary. Tonight, I want to share the words of our children. I begin with the thoughts of a young woman I’ve never met, but whose words cut me to the quick. Her name is Julia Savoca Gibson:

It was last Saturday when it hit me that my entire life has been framed by violence. I don’t remember being born on Jan. 28, 2000, and I don’t remember being a year and a half old when 9/11 happened. I don’t remember the panic of my mother as she stepped outside our house in Washington and smelled the smoke of the burning Pentagon. I don’t remember her knowing I would grow up in a changed world. But I remember other things. I remember being 7 years old and seeing adults who were sad, angry, shocked after something terrible happened at Virginia Tech. I remember not knowing why. I remember the lockdown drills at my elementary school, the helpful signs in every classroom telling us where to hide in case of an active shooter.

I remember being in seventh grade, and I remember my teacher looking up from her computer, pale, and running out of the room without a word during a quiz. I remember her walking back in, tears streaking her face, as she told us there had been a shooting in Newtown, Conn., where her grandchildren lived. I remember her telling us they were all right, and I remember thinking of my little brother and feeling my stomach churn.

“Virginia Tech, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, Tree of Life. These are my memories,” Julia Savoca Gibson wrote in a powerful essay published in the Washington Post. It’s title? “I am 18. I belong to the massacre generation.”

The Massacre Generation. Let that sink in: not the Greatest Generation, not the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers or Millennials; the Massacre Generation. This is how our young people see themselves, a generation when school shootings happen more often than NFL games. There are variations of the name, but the horror is the same. “We’re the mass shooting generation,” said Cameron Kasky, survivor of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas tragedy, “I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings.” “Call them: Generation Columbine,” says Greg Toppo, “Born during the first few years of the 21st century, our youngest Americans have never known a world without school shootings.” I return to the words of Julia Savoca Gibson, who describes a generation’s pain:

I remember walking into my high school the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting and seeing one of my gay friends sitting limply in a chair, eyes hollow. I remember sobbing. Often, I remember sobbing. I remember friends’ tears a year later, after the shooting in Las Vegas, and I remember feeling angry that I wasn’t crying.

I remember Parkland the most clearly. I remember the silence. No one talked about it the morning after. No teachers mentioned it. I remember bringing it up at lunch but receiving only passing responses. I remember talking to my friend Max about how odd it was that no one said anything. I remember him gathering our friends to organize a walkout. I remember walking out, and I remember the silence of the crowd of students standing outside in the March cold. I remember the crackle of the megaphone we used as we read one name of one victim every minute. I remember those 17 minutes. I remember marching, once, then twice, and again and again. 

Again and again and again. Southaven, Brooklyn, Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Odessa, the list goes on and on and will soon cover every settled town in America. And Chicago somehow doesn’t make these lists, despite all the victims of gun violence in our hometown. Yet out litany of locales where multitudes are massacred painfully includes two attacks on synagogues, Jewish houses of worship where our extended family gathers as we do tonight, synagogues in Poway and Pittsburgh. Julia Savoca Gibson, herself not Jewish, knows our pain as her own:

I remember going with two friends last Friday to a Shabbat service in the spare room of a local Methodist church, sponsored by my college’s Jewish organization Hillel. I remember my friend Lucy leading the prayers, with her singing and playing guitar, and I remember my valiant attempts to sing along using the transliterations below the Hebrew in the books they’d handed out. I remember getting kosher dinner with them afterward as they explained to me how and why kosher food was a thing. I remember them describing the different kinds of Judaism they all came from.

I remember waking up on Saturday morning and seeing the news [about Pittsburgh] on my phone. I remember the sadness, shock, anger. I remember the haunting thought that the shooter might have gone to our service instead, or could go to the next one. I remember a stream of dripping wax burning my finger at the vigil I attended. I remember the look in my Jewish friends’ eyes.

And it was then that I remembered everything at once. I remembered all the violence looming around me, and my friends, and my entire generation. I remembered that for anyone born near the year 2000, this is all we’ve ever known. 

For anyone born after the turn of the millennium, massacres of gun violence are all they’ve ever known. I became a rabbi in the year 2000, and worked for fourteen years just forty miles from Newtown, CT. This entire generation, the massacre generation, was raised on my watch. Chatati: I have missed the mark. As I soberly greet my 20th Kol Nidre as a rabbi, I have watched a generation grow up in a world of over 2,000 mass shootings. Aviti: I have transgressed. In my five years here at Chicago Sinai Congregation, over 2,500 people have been killed by guns in our city, called “America’s mass shooting capital”. Pashati: I have sinned.

Kol Nidrei calls me to account. It is not just that Jewish tradition teaches to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks; it is hardly that Torah commands do not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.[10] Two thousand years ago in the Land of Israel, our community confronted a crisis that threatened the very existence of its children. Stepping into the breach, Rabbi Judah the Prince brought his colleagues to the cities that stood idly by while children suffered, and demanded, “Take us to the leaders of the city!” They were brought to the Senatore Karta, the “Guardians of the City”, as local leaders were called in Roman times. The rabbis proclaimed before the Senatore, “You are not the guardians of the city; you are the destroyers of the city!”

 The Senatore did not set out with swords or spears to destroy their cities. But on their watch, children lost hope for the future. The Senatore saw success—building roads, aqueducts, city squares and public baths—but they failed to protect their children. This feels familiar. Since 2000, we have allowed nine million AK-47s assault rifles to be manufactured and purchased in the United States. Hatanu: we have missed the mark. Since last summer, when 75 people were shot here in one weekend, three thousand more human beings in Chicago have had their lives pierced by a bullet. Avinu: we have transgressed. Since Newtown, we have allowed a generation for whom we are responsible, a generation whose souls should shine with the optimism of youth, to define themselves by the massacres of gun violence they expect any instant. Pashanu: we have sinned. There is a massacre generation; they were raised on our watch. Chatanu, Avinu, Pashanu.

We come on Kol Nidrei to confront our sins, our shortcoming, our failings. We live in a world of bulletproof backpacks, of anxiety entering music arenas, of security screens at sports stadiums, schools, synagogues. When it comes to mass shootings, when it comes to gun violence, we cannot hide from the truth taught by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: some are guilty, all are responsible. I am not personally guilty of committing any violence with a gun; likely neither are any assembled here this evening. We are not the some who are guilty of gun violence, of gun obsession, of gun trauma, of gun massacres in America. But Kol Nidre comes to have us confess: we are all responsible.

Kol Nidre cannot only be about confession. Our liturgy reminds us over and again that it is not enough to know we are wrong, to know we have done wrong; on Yom Kippur, we must determine how we will change. The only way to remove our guilt, the sole path to living up to our responsibility, is to chart a different course for the future. While it is never easy to change our character—to learn to listen before we judge, to train ourselves to be more patient with those who frustrate us—it is a different order of magnitude to shift the sands underneath a national epidemic. Ending American gun violence is a herculean effort, we tell ourselves, which grants small comfort given our failings. We wonder: how can we change two decades of American insanity? What can we do so that our youth see themselves as anything other than the Massacre Generation?

The good news is that we don’t need to come up with any plan: the massacre generation is doing it themselves. It’s not as if our young people don’t realize how massive a change is required; the massacre generation is leading us even though they understand the enormity of the epidemic. Take, Zoe Terner, for example. Zoe grew up a leader in her Reform Synagogue, and then became Social Action Vice-President of NFTY, our national Reform Jewish Youth Group. During that tenure, this teenager didn’t only feel overwhelmed by the reality of gun violence; Zoe also experienced an overwhelming sense of responsibility:

I’m a big sister. I have three little siblings. It has always been my job to protect them and keep them safe. That easily and clearly translates in to wanting to keep everybody else safe. I love my siblings; I love my community. I want to protect them and I have an obligation to protect them. That’s overwhelming.

Matt Daitsch, another Reform Jewish teen leader, a graduate of Marjorie Stonenman Douglas, could easily have cowered in the face of gun violence. During his freshman year at college, he watched from afar the news of the Stoneman shooting, knowing his younger siblings were in the building but not knowing their fate. Matt felt overwhelmed, but—leaning on our Jewish tradition—he turned his emotions into action and helped found March for Our Lives. Matt explains:

Right after the shooting, I couldn’t sleep because we didn’t know who had been killed or not. We were getting texts from some of our friends that their siblings were killed, and other texts weren’t delivering or sending.

It was a very long night. I stayed up the whole night and called a friend I went to Kol Tikvah with and we talked about why people don’t care about the humanity lost. I leaned on the ideas of the Mourner’s Qaddish and celebrating life, not death. Instead of talking about the evil shooter and how bad gun violence is, every time we were on the TV, we spent every single minute we had on every single victim, how they were with their families, what they did with their life. We decided to celebrate life. The media started to shift the narrative to talk about people. That is most in tune with our Jewish values as any change we have seen over the last 18 months.

Matt Daitsch and Zoe Terner are two powerful leaders of a new movement to end gun violence. Despite their youth, notwithstanding how daunting is their task, they are literally and figuratively changing the narrative on what is possible with gun reform in America. And, Matt and Zoe are not only young, not only inspired and dedicated; they also happen to be proud Reform Jews. Zoe and Matt credit their synagogue youth groups for instilling in them the Jewish values that drive them and for teaching them the social justice practices that helped them become powerful advocates. Because of their upbringing in Reform synagogues like Sinai, while both Zoe and Matt feel overwhelmed by the plague of gun violence, they do not feel overmatched. They do not feel overmatched because they know their strength comes from their Jewish community. They know that, even as they take the lead, we in the Jewish community will follow to their leadership and support their efforts. Matt speaks directly to us all as he explains how the work of the massacre generation is intricately interconnected with our efforts to support them:

It’s a really big responsibility that is on my shoulders, and on all of your shoulders. We are all responsible for one another. If we are overwhelmed, we are doing it right. We acknowledge how much work there is to do. That gets us up every morning and we can’t stop, no matter what, because people are counting on us.[17]

Matt invokes a teaching of our Talmud: all Israel is responsible each for the other. As Chief Strategist for March for Our Lives, Matt knows people are counting on him; in turn, Matt and his peers hope we can be the people on whom they rely. We might imagine these young people have no need for us; we are the hapless and helpless who raised the Massacre Generation. But our youth are telling us exactly how we—we who have so often failed them—can finally start to be of help. Yes, these incredible leaders are taking stands in powerful ways. But they want—they need—our support. Zoe explains that we should not just celebrate youth leaders, but need to follow their lead. We need to be there behind them, alongside them if invited. “It is a choice,” Zoe explains, adding, “We can choose to show up or we can do nothing. The message that doing nothing sends to our young people is really, really strong and powerful.” The Massacre Generation feels our absence as much as they appreciate our presence. Matt put it more bluntly:

If you are not using your privilege as a resource for people who are oppressed, you are a part of the problem. Every single one of you—I mean this as frankly as I can—has to do more for the people who aren’t in this room.

Our kids notice when we do nothing to help them. We need to do something. Rabbi Judah the Prince, in a different time of crisis, condemned failed leaders as “Destroyers of the City.” Offended by the allegation, those Senatores asked, “Who, then, are the guardians of the city?” Rabbi Judah responded, “Those who support the young.” Our Talmud teaches us what our young leaders are similarly saying: our job is to get behind our children and give them all the support they require to make the life-saving changes they desperately seek.

What do our young people demand? Common sense, actually. Mandatory background checks, a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high capacity magazines, funding for intervention programs, disarming domestic abusers, and other actions deemed reasonable seemingly anywhere but America. Recently, March for Our Lives added to their “Peace Platform” a provision calling for: a mandatory gun buyback program; increasing the age for gun-purchasing to 21; a waiting period for gun purchases; and establishing a “National Director of Gun Violence Protection”. “It’s bold. It’s nothing like anyone else is proposing,” said Tyan-Amoy Roberts, another young leader with March for Our Lives. “We are changing the conversation around gun violence itself because we don’t want the narrative to come from people who haven’t experienced it.”The massacre generation speaks for itself.

The massacre generation knows what it wants, and is telling us how we can help. Kathryn Fleisher, yet another Reform Jewish young leader, who founded the aptly-named “Not My Generation,” explains why she does what she does, and how we who have failed so poorly in the past still need to show up in support:

In working with older generations, we are constantly presented with the same sentiment: “I’m sorry our generation didn’t do more. I’m sorry we left this mess for you.” This is the sentiment that powers our work. We refuse to say the same thing to our children and our children’s children. Our mission is to end the gun violence epidemic with us. Our mission is to never have to apologize to the next generation for not giving everything we have to the fight against gun violence. Our generation will not allow the American gun violence epidemic to keep a stranglehold on our country for any longer. That’s why we’re called “Not My Generation;” that’s why we work to empower young people; that’s why we’re so deeply committed to this work; that’s why we need you to join us.

We need you to join us. This is what our Talmud, our times, teach: we need to support the young. We need to march when they ask us to, we need to provide them the resources of our time and talent, we need to fund the incredible efforts they are undertaking to change a nation’s narrative. This is exactly what we at Sinai have already done: when the first March for Our Lives happened here in Chicago, members of this congregation organized a gathering space for Chicagoland’s NFTY teens to come together, to pray and to rally for action, and to march united—leading us, their elders—to Union Park for the protest. And we need to do more.

Zoe Terner, over the phone, told me a hundred ways we adults can help our kids. First, we need to take interest, “You have to notice what they are doing and say come do it with us! Come do it in partnership with us. You just have to bring up that seat at the table.” Even as we pull up a chair for our kids, we also have some wisdom to share. Since teens haven’t run large organizations, they need a guiding hand on logistics and finance; since they don’t have driver’s licenses, they need help getting around. Also, Zoe reminded me we don’t need to look very far for these activists, as there are probably young people in our congregation doing this work already. And she is right: Jason Tothy, a Bar Mitzvah, Confirmand and madrich here at Sinai, was recently awarded a JUF Springboard Award to, “Create a summit for Jewish teens, in partnership with adult leaders, regarding the reality behind gun violence in Chicago.”Jason knows he needs us to show up, to work collaboratively, in order to “build a better tomorrow”. Listen to our youth: they want us at the table. They value our expertise, our partnership. Now it is time for us to show up for them.

We who have failed the Massacre Generation now need to have their back. To put it simply, we need to pull up a chair at our communal table and ask them how we can support their efforts. And if no such table exists, we must build one for them. If we want to atone for the sin of having the Massacre Generation come into existence on our watch, we need to support the leaders of this generation as they strive to build a better world. To put it simply: we need to listen to their voices, we need to support their efforts, we need to give them all the resources—of our time and of our money—that we can, we need to march when they ask us to march, and… we need to vote how they tell us to vote. I want to stress that last point: we need to vote—in every single election—exactly how they tell us to vote. For, as they are teaching us, our time and effort and money mean nothing without local and national change in leadership. And that only happens through elections. Listen one last time to this plea from Zoe Terner:

Especially with youth activists under 18, it is super frustrating to do this work and not show up at the polls to vote. So one ask we have, since we can’t vote, is that you do! And not just for national elections, but for all the local ones. Since our voices can’t yet be counted in that way, it’s important that you share yours on our behalf. 

Which brings me back to where I started, with the pained, painful, yet inspiring message of Julia Savoca Gibson. She ends her essay not focusing on her harrowing memories, but on the hopeful memories she is working to create:

I remember filling out my absentee ballot a few weeks ago. I remember voting, hoping that weeks, years, decades from now I’d be able to remember that we changed.

Hoping that weeks, years, decades from now we would be able to remember that we changed. Change is the hope of Kol Nidre. Let us change our hearts and turn them towards our children, so they can change the future. If we burdened them with the moniker “Massacre Generation”, let us allow them to become instead the leaders who earn the title, “Defenders of the City,” of the nation, of the world. Let us give them every ounce of support, every dollar in the bank, every vote in every election. Let us help them create the world of peace and wholeness they envision.

And may their will become reality.

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