Ivy Schamis’s Holocaust history students were giving presentations on how to combat hatred when gunfire erupted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Two of those pupils, Helena Ramsay and Nicholas Dworet, died, along with 15 other people.
“I called that place my ‘happy place’ for 10 years,” Schamis said. Now, that classroom is a painful reminder of what happened on Feb. 14, 2018.
Schamis and a group of Parkland survivors and family members visited Pittsburgh this past weekend to meet with members of the Jewish community for “Parkland to Pittsburgh: Stronger Together,” three days of healing and community building.
On Friday, teens from Pittsburgh and Parkland met at Taylor Allderdice High School to discuss gun violence advocacy. Packed shoulder to shoulder in the school’s library, students heard personal stories from Parkland kids leading the assembly.
“We’re all here together because of one underlying reason and two deeds – Feb. 14, where we lost 17 Eagles at our own high school, and Oct. 27, where 11 lives were also taken here,” said Lizzie Eaton, a Parkland teen survivor.
“We want to spread the message of hope and unity and overcoming tragedy because it’s so hard to do it alone,” she said.
“It’s a great opportunity for the Allderdice students,” said Andrea Holber, a teen from Parkland. “Some are exposed to gun violence often and we wanted to see how we could make a change.”
The ultimate message was that kids can be the change and overcome hate.
Following the assembly, the group gathered outside Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 congregants were gunned down last fall. Attendees huddled under a canopy out of the rain to share emotional memories of those loved and lost. There were tears and laughter, prayers and songs.
The two tragedies, separated by nine months and hundreds of miles, created a united front among the participants.
“ ’Neighbor’ is a moral concept not bound by geography,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Pittsburgh. “They’re here to help us heal.”
Symons also guides the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, which organized the three-day event to promote healing and resilience.
Teacher Sharon Cutler understands the effort it takes to recover from violence. When the gunman – a former student – terrorized the school, she herded her class into a closet. She doesn’t want that nightmare of aggression, or the one experienced at Tree of Life, to define their respective communities. She came to Pittsburgh to help spread that message throughout the weekend.
The busy schedule included an emotional meeting with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in City Hall. Delegations from Tree of Life and Parkland attended Saturday’s Pirates game at PNC Park, where they were recognized for their message of acceptance and peace.
Sunday was allocated to J-Serve, the international day of Jewish youth service, which takes place in 90cities around the world. More than 300 teens spent the day doing yard work, packing craft kits for Children’s Hospital patients, serving lunch to people in need, making toys for shelter animals and other acts of kindness.
Most of the Parkland teens helped facilitate a workshop to teach kids about gun violence advocacy. Others in the Parkland contingency participated in a Community Resiliency Town Hall with Pittsburgh leaders. (Watch a special presentation, “A Project CommUNITY Town Hall, Parkland to Pittsburgh: Stronger Together,” at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WTAE-TV.)
“We want to spread the message of hope and unity and overcoming tragedy,” Lizzie said, “because it’s so hard to do it alone.”