Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School students joined thousands of their peers across the nation in walking out of class Wednesday, March 14, in memory of the 14 teens and three adults slain in the Parkland shooting one month earlier.
But while most students demonstrated at 10 a.m., AJA students waited until 1:20 p.m. so they could distance themselves from national protest movement leaders believed to hold anti-Semitic views.
“We have always been supportive of our students’ ability to become leaders and express their rights,” said Rabbi Ari Leubitz, AJA’s head of school. “When we became aware that the organizers’ leaders had interactions with some anti-Semitic people and were unwilling to denounce their views, we were confronted with a conflict between the value of speaking out against the injustice and sadness we are experiencing while standing by our proud Jewish values.”
AJA and the student walkout’s organizers compromised on a plan that allowed the high-schoolers to walk out on the same date as the national movement but at a later time.
Students who decided to walk out for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. did not face disciplinary consequences.
“Regardless of how bad the situation is, as a Jew, I will always put my Judaism first,” 10th-grader Aden Dori said. She organized the walkout with 12th-grader Ben Ogden and 10th-grader Tali Feen.
“It was more powerful for me to send a message that you can’t talk down to Jews and expect us to join because the end goal will always be more pressing,” Dori added.
The commemoration began near the Sandy Springs school’s entrance underneath the flagpole. Dori and Feen read the names of the victims with a brief description of what each person meant to the family and friends left behind.
Some of the more than 30 students in the crowd lighted battery-operated candles as each name was read.
“These are the kids in my community, and I want to show them that their rabbi supports them,” he said. “I’m really proud of them for taking the initiative and doing it in such a positive, respectful and appropriate way.”
Ogden spoke about the need to stand up for change and to never forget the people who died, five of whom were Jewish. “I think it’s very easy for these things to happen, to leave them and assume that it will get figured out by those in charge, but there comes a point where somebody has to step up,” he said. “This is our time to thrive and to take action.”
After the memorial service, the students participated in a 17-minute walk around the school campus. Some students held signs, wore “Enough” T-shirts and sang “Acheinu” as a police car escorted them down Northland Drive to High Point Road.
The students also held a moment of silence in memory of the people killed.
“We are always faced with situations and events, but no one is actively doing anything to stop it, so the fact that students took it upon themselves to be in this movement means a lot,” Dori said. “Our generation is always talked down to because people feel we are young and may not know how to resolve anything, but we ourselves can start making change.”
Citing hundreds of school shootings since 2013, Feen said, “it’s important for us to take notice of this because these shootings are happening to students who are trying to make a difference.”
She added, “The walkout was important to me because we wanted to show that we not only cared about the individuals that were killed, but also because we need to make change.”
Photos by Sarah Moosazadeh