BOSTON — In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, United Synagogue Youth’s annual international convention ventured outside the confines of its Jewish denomination and into the realm of a national political issue.
USY, the youth movement of the Conservative movement’s congregational umbrella (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), on Dec. 26 drew about 1,000 Jewish youths to Boston’s Copley Square as part of the “Praying With Our Feet” rally against gun violence.
During the rally, USYers (as they are affectionately known) were taught the effects of collective action and given background information on gun control regulations.
“We felt it was important to mobilize the USYers around an issue that really is pan-denominational—it crosses all lines; it’s not a white, a black, a Jewish, a Catholic thing. It’s an every thing. It is a global issue that we are addressing and something that our USYers can feel that they are making an impact and have a voice because they don’t actually have a vote yet,” said USY communications coordinator Matthew Halpern.
USY International President Joshua Ull said the group rallied “not for policy but for peace” in the wake of the shooting that killed 26 people in Newtown, Conn.
“Through our efforts, USY is making a difference: We are the voice for the [Sandy Hook] children who did not have a chance to speak up for themselves,” he said.
The rally opened with a briefing at the Copley Marriott Hotel, followed with a march to the centre of Boston’s downtown area, where featured speakers included Rabbi David Levy (director of teen learning for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), Pastor Corey Brooks of the New Beginnings Church of Chicago, and Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
Sheila Decter, director of the Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action, in her speech outlined a potential three-pronged reform plan created by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition.
The plan suggested requiring a criminal background check for every gun sold in the U.S., banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and making gun trafficking a federal crime with real penalties. Decter read a letter from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in which the mayor described that changes in gun control legislation eliminated 500 illegal guns from the city’s streets in the past year.
After the Sandy Hook shooting, USY as an organization felt the rally was a natural direction to go in.
“The issue of gun violence touches every community our USYers come from and our teens are ready to raise their voices and make a difference,” Rabbi Levy said in a press statement.
Miriam Ross, a parent chaperone for NERUSY (a region including USY chapters from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine), said she felt it was important that the rally had “both a verbal and physical aspect to what the kids were doing, because they are our future… and being able to exercise their voices, their First Amendment rights, understanding the importance of taking a stance, the event really concretized that feeling.”
Despite the Newtown tragedy being the impetus for their rally, USYers maintained uplifted spirits throughout the hour-and-a-half outdoor event. USYers, as well as their siblings and parents, held bright-colored signs calling for the end of gun violence and the increase of gun control. Speakers were punctuated by intermissions of song and dance led by the USY convention’s artist-in-residence, Josh Nelson.
“It’s very motivational for us as teens,” USYer Rachel Kaufman, who is from Providence, RI, said of the rally. “I learned that there are so many ways you can get people together to make a statement, but there is just one event for us in a year (the USY convention) that we can come together as a youth group. [Change] can be done through music, words, and our beliefs. It was really powerful.”