Behind the Headlines: As New Congress Takes Over, Young Jews Flock to Join Staffs

When Jason Schwartz was 13, he told his mother he wanted to be the first Jewish president.

In January, he will take the first step in his nascent political career when he starts his job as a legislative assistant to the only Jewish freshman in the Congress, Rep. John Fox (R-Pa.)

Schwartz will be joining a small band of young up-and-coming Jews who call Capitol Hill their home.

Young people, including Jews, come and go on Capitol Hill, but rarely has there been such a dramatic changeover as the one that will take place next month when the Republicans take over both the Senate and House for the first time in 40 years.

No matter who is in the majority, however, young Jewish staffers on the Hill are linked by their Jewish heritage and by a desire to make a difference.

Some are active in Jewish life on the Hill, which includes religious services and an annual Chanukah party. Others connect with their Jewish colleagues to share thoughts and ideas ion policy issues close to the Jewish community, or, if they have time, just to do lunch.

“We have a thriving Jewish life here,” said Aliza Rieger, as legislative assistant for Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We sort of have a Jewish network.”

Having other Jews on the Hill who “speak the same language,” is a plus, said Rieger, who is 24.

“We’re a good support group,” she said. “We talk, we hang out. There is definitely a cohesiveness and a recognition when we see each other.”

Working on the Hill helps Rieger and other Jewish staffers stay connected to their Jewish heritage by offering them the chance to work on issues close to the Jewish community, like education and foreign policy.

“It would be very hard for me to maintain a Jewish connection if I wasn’t working on Jewish issues,” said Rieger, who handles foreign policy, Jewish community issues and other ethnic issues for Schumer.

Young people flock to Capitol Hill for a number of reasons. Some revel in the excitements of politics, white others use the experience as a stepping stone to higher positions. Still others come to the Hill as a break between college and graduate school.

Also, some say young people are the only ones who can handle the long hours, heavy workload and low pay that comes with many entry-level legislative positions.

They also can handle the possibility of losing their job at the casting of a ballot easier then someone with a family and a mortgage.

“I’m 22,” Schwartz said. “I’m at a point in my life where I can do these things. If the opportunity comes up, I can go ahead and do it.”

While Schwartz is taking advantage of his new opportunity, Michael Lapides, 23, is looking for ones off the Hill. Lapides’ boss, Sen. Jim Sasser (D- Tenn.), lost his bid for re-election in last month’s Republican rout.

“The doors close Jan. 2,” Lapides said. “We’ve got the boxes all lined up,” ready to move out of the office.

Since the election, Lapides, who served as Sasser’s projects assistant, has spent most of his time looking for a new job, and applying to business schools.

“I’m spending a lot of time on the phone calling friends and asking what’s going on out there,” he said.

Lapides’ time on the Hill was brief, about 6 months, but he said he would not trade if for the world.

“I may be out of a job, but if I had it to do over again, even with the same result, I’d do it. Working on the Hill was a great experience and I’ll be able to tell people 50 or 60 years from now that I worked there,” he said.

Michael Dannenberg, 24, is also leaving the Hill. He was the senior elementary and secondary education specialist for the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, chaired by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.).

Although he planned to leave in the summer to attend law school, he said being forced out by the elections was painful.

“It hurts because I’m leaving not when I planned to. It’s being dictated by circumstances,” he said. “But this is the nature of the business.”

Dannenberg, who spent more than three years in Washington politics, said he is pleased with what he has accomplished in his time there.

He still plans to attend law school in the fall, and is looking for a job in the private sector.

Stephanie Lewis, 23, never made it to the Hill. She had been working in Democratic Rep. John LaFalce’s district office in Buffalo, N.Y. since August, expecting to join his Washington staff after the elections. Instead, she is moving to New York City in hopes of finding a new job.

LaFalce lost his committee chairmanship in the Republican takeover and could not afford to keep Lewis on.

“It’s a strange twist,” she said. “It reiterates the saying, `last hired, first fired.’ But I’ve had a ball. I’ve really learned a lot.”

As these three look for lives off the Hill, Schwartz, who has worked for Fox since high school, is looking forward to starting a life on the Hill.

“It’s dream come true,” he said. “Working for Fox is the opportunity of a lifetime and I would probably take this job if they paid me $1.”

He is spending the time before he starts his new job helping fellow Fox staffers hunt for apartments, wrapping things up at his old job and deciding which decorations from his old office to put in his new one.

Despite the low pay, tough hours and minimal job security, most twentysomethings who work in Washington love what they do.

They say their jobs offer them opportunities they cannot get anywhere else. They get to be in the thick of national issues, play a role in drafting legislation and see the inside view of politics.

“There’s no place like (Washington) in the world, especially if you like politics,” Dannenberg said. “Where else can a 22-year-old get heads of major corporations on the phone?”

Rieger added, “The hill is great, but hectic. I tell my friends I feel like I work at the bottom of the Chicago stock exchange.”

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