2018-02-28 / Home

Parkland teens with local ties speak about harrowing ordeal


Jared Block and Fallon Trachtman are both sophomores at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Jared Block and Fallon Trachtman are both sophomores at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When Jared Block’s family moved from Cherry Hill to Parkland, FL five years ago, his parents touted the striking similarities between his new community and the one he was so sad to leave behind. Both were known for stellar schools, a sizable Jewish population, safe streets and neighborhoods teeming with kids.

Jared, a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, still feels that Parkland lives up to the hype. But that sense of security and “living in a bubble” he always took for granted was shattered earlier this month. On Valentine’s Day, a l9-year-old former student—armed with a legally purchased assault weapon—massacred 17 people on the 3,200-student campus. The death toll included 14 fellow Stoneman Douglas students.

Close enough to the mayhem to hear a barrage of fire and panic-stricken screams; Jared and some 70 teens from his drama class were ushered by their teacher to safety. They hid for hours in a closet crammed with performing arts props before they were set free by heavily armed members of a SWAT team. Concurrently, on another part of the sprawling campus, his close friend Fallon Trachtman, originally from Linwood, was also hiding behind a locked door in a closet— too far from the scene to know exactly what was going on but cued in enough to be terrified.

“When I finally got home from school that day around 5 or 6 p.m., I could not stop shaking,” said Jared, who was reunited with his parents Gayle and Josh as well as his eighth-grade sister Addison. “I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I was just a mess.”

That night was the first of several vigils and gatherings in town. Jared spent much of the time reuniting with friends, hugging classmates and teachers and piecing together what actually happened while he was seeking shelter under a keyboard with spotty WIFI reception in the drama room closet.

Later that night, he finally cried. “I was finally able to process it and that’s when it really hit me,” he said.

For Fallon too, the aftermath of one of the deadliest school shootings has been an extended nightmare. Attending the funeral of a 14-year-old friend was among the hardest things she has ever had to do. A talented trombone player who dreamed of attending the University of Connecticut, freshman Alex Schacter was known for his sunny disposition. His funeral at the Star of David Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale drew some 1,200 people. Fallon said she was most struck by Alex’s father’s mention of the smoothies he used to make that Alex and his friends loved so much.

“It was awful hearing him talk about all the stuff everyone takes for granted every day, and no one thinks they will not get to do again,” said Fallon, 16, whose family was active in Chabad at the Shore before they moved to Florida four years ago. “His dad will never be able to make smoothies for him again.”

Alex was among the five victims— four of them students and one a teacher—who were Jewish. Alyssa Alhadeff, remembered as a sweet girl with the poise of someone older than her 15 years, previously lived at the Jersey shore and was fondly remembered at the Jewish Community Day School in Northfield where she attended kindergarten.

While many of Fallon and Jared’s friends have been among the most outspoken of the Parkland teens speaking out on national media—demanding safer schools and calling out politicians for their refusal to address gun control measures—Jared and Fallon too have vowed to honor the memory of their fallen classmates through activism. Both attended the town hall meeting Feb. 21 hosted by CNN in which students confronted a National Rifle Association spokesperson with their concerns, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. Both plan on attending the “March for our Lives,” March 24—organized by Parkland teens—in Washington D.C. to protest gun violence. Reminiscent of the Holocaust, the kids have adopted #Never Again as a slogan.

Before the shooting, Fallon admitted, she didn’t pay much attention to current events— including other tragic school shootings and gun reform that seemed to bear little relevance in her life. But if a gunman could let loose at Stoneman Douglas, she cautioned, it could happen anywhere. And everyone needs to pay attention.

“I haven’t met one person here who didn’t move here for the good schools and the safe neighborhoods,” said Fallon, whose father Gary is from Cherry Hill and mother Lynn from Margate. “There was no crime here, but all it takes is one kid with a semiautomatic assault weapon for this to happen.”

In South Jersey, several synagogues and Jewish communal organizations have plans in the works to charter buses or otherwise organize groups to attend the March 24 rally. Among them, Adath Emanu-El teens, along with Rabbi Ben David, are following through with earlier plans to discuss “reasonable solutions to the crisis of gun violence in our nation” with lawmakers even before the rally. They will be in Washington D.C. this weekend for a previously planned confirmation trip focused on social action. The issue has taken on more resonance since the Parkland shooting, David said.

Both students at M’kor Shalom and Adath have written letters to Parkland students— meant to get to the kids for their first day back to school—to show their solidarity. Down the shore, students in Kulanu School of Jewish Studies discussed the shooting recently and came up with a position paper they’re sending to lawmakers making clear their desire to ban semiautomatic assault rifles.

Stoneman Douglas student Jared notes that he is proud of his community and friends for the movement they have started, and pledged not to back down in their mission to make schools safer for future generations.

“Nikolas Cruz is not going to win,” he added, referring to the gunman. “We were scared; we were terrorized, but we are all going to rise above him.” 

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