Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.
“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”
Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.
While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.
Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).
In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.
Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.
May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.