Beth Israel teens lobby lawmakers in Washington, DC
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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Thirteen members of Congregation Beth Israel's 10th-grade confirmation class "made a difference" during the L'Taken Seminar at the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C.
The students celebrated Shabbat with more than 150 teens, and attended intense workshops and break-out sessions from Nov. 11-15. The weekend culminated with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress.
"I liked learning about how issues are important to us as Reform Jews," said Lisa France, one of CBI's participants. "And we felt like we made a difference talking to our Congress people."
Kayla Anchell concurred with her classmate, "The highlight was being able to speak to the representatives. You prepared for it, and it was great to know we were making a difference by talking to those people."
The lobbying effort was named as the trip's highlight by many of the students, said Ben Sandler, Beth Israel's education director, who accompanied the students on the trip along with Rayna Dushman, Beth Israel's youth adviser, and Henry Kunowski, Beth Israel board member and class parent.
The Religious Action Center is the political branch of the Union for Reform Judaism, the parent organization of the Reform Movement.
The L'Taken Seminar (formerly known as the Political Action Seminar Program) is an intensive four-day kallah, in Washington, D.C., focused on Jewish values and social justice.
Sandler said students crammed in 35 hours of Judaic study of the issues before lobbying their congressmen. He said the RAC presented about 16 issues on which the Reform Movement has taken a stance. Students were told they might not agree with all the positions but that they probably could find at least one issue about which they felt passionate.
"The kids were so articulate," said Sandler. "You could feel the adrenaline."
Students presented their views on various issues to legislative offices. The Oregon contingent met with aides of Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. David Wu.
"It was so authentic," said Sandler, noting that since legislators might face 10,000 bills a year, they must rely on their aides. "We talked to their aides. They are the eyes and ears for these people."
France said her group discussed reproductive rights during meetings with the aides. During the study sessions before the lobbying visit, France said she learned that in Reform Judaism the mother's life takes precedence, so "if there will be physical or emotional harm in any way, you should spare the mother that pain."
Students also visited Washington, D.C., sites such as the Holocaust Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.
France, who had visited the Holocaust Museum before with a school group, said that visiting the Holocaust Museum with her Jewish peers was more meaningful.
"I felt they understood where I was coming from," said France. "When I went with a school group, they all felt it was sad, but they didn't have the same bond to it that I did."
Anchell said she felt the entire trip was enhanced by attending with her Beth Israel classmates.
"I got to know people in my congregation a lot better," she said, adding she also enjoyed meeting teens from around the country. "It was neat to meet other teens who share my beliefs and are fighting for the same things."
Sandler said that Rabbi Emanuel Rose, who teaches the confirmation class, concentrates on social action and civil liberties throughout the year.
"It doesn't end with that weekend," said Sandler. "The kids have come back fired up about the issues. -?? Once you get into helping people, it's a really good feeling."
He said students are being given the opportunity to participate in a variety of social action projects at the synagogue. He said several of the students plan to help feed the homeless at the Christmas dinner the congregation will be serving at a local shelter.
Confirmation classes from Beth Israel have attended the seminar annually since 1995. This year's trip was made possible by members of the congregation who have contributed to the Temple Endowment; by parents of the confirmands; and by special assistance from the Holzman Family Foundation.