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FOCUS ON ISSUES Program helps teens to view policy issues via Jewish prism

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (JTA) — Against a backdrop of perennial policy debate and political dealings in the nation”s capital, Jewish teen- agers are discovering how to look at social and public policy concerns through the prism of Jewish values and teachings. In the coming year, nearly 1,000 Jewish high school students from across the country will come to Washington to participate in a program called Panim el Panim — a four-day leadership seminar that gives students a “face to face”” look at the Jewish public policy agenda and the political process. Most are like Joel Nickerson, a 17-year-old high school senior from San Mateo, Calif., who wanted to “learn how Jewish values are integrated into our government”” and to discover new ways that, he said, he can “give back to my community.”” Since it was launched in 1988 by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, nearly 4,000 students in 90 communities have participated in the Panim el Panim program. Every year, as many as 100 Jewish high school students in grades 10 through 12 participate in each of about a dozen separate Panim el Panim seminars. In addition, the program is now a component of a pilot Jewish Civics Initiative course in nine communities throughout the country. The course also includes study of a Jewish civics curriculum and community service projects in the teens” home communities. “Our goal is to have students see”” the Jewish tradition as “a lot more compelling and relevant to the lives that they”re engaged in,”” said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, president of the Washington Institute. The institute runs the civics program in conjunction with the Jewish Education Service of North America. Schwarz said the course was developed as a way of providing continuity at home for the lessons learned in Washington. “The fact that they”re thinking about issues that are going to affect their community and their world and that they”ll think about issues framed in Jewish ways is something that does not happen in their very paltry Hebrew school experience,”” he said. Program coordinators see the course and the Washington experience as a means of strengthening Jewish identity and promoting Jewish affiliation at a pivotal developmental period for young Jews. An independent study commissioned by the Washington Institute in 1992 suggests that the Panim el Panim program has met many of its goals. It found that students who participated in the program were more likely to “recognize the link between Jewish perspectives and social and public policy, to have a deeper appreciation of the American Jewish community”s role in American political life and world affairs, and to express a more intense commitment to social action.”” At this year”s first Panim el Panim conference here, there was abundant evidence of increased awareness and enthusiasm for Jewish involvement. Some of the participants, such as Tayla Lazarow, a 17-year-old senior from San Diego, were surprised to learn of the level of Jewish engagement in the public affairs arena. “I was amazed at how much power Jews have in politics,”” she said after hearing presentations from a representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and from President Clinton”s liaison to the Jewish community. “Even though we”re 2 percent of the population, we double that number in terms of our voting,”” Nickerson said. “It makes me proud to be a Jew.”” Schwarz said the program is geared in part toward teens who have a “show-me attitude,”” questioning “why being Jewish is important.”” “We accept that challenge,”” he said. “Nothing that the organized Jewish community does is going to change the fact that Jews ask that question.”” Through their Washington experience and through civic engagement back home, program coordinators hope to provide Jewish teens with not one, but a variety of answers to that question. “I want the kids to go away and see that a Jew who is doing cutting edge social justice work may be fulfilling their Judaism in a way that is just as valid as someone who is a very observant Jew,”” Schwarz said. For 17-year-old Jessica Intrator, a senior from San Jose, Calif., the program has helped her understand that there are many ways to express Judaism and Jewish values. “If I was speaking to a friend who was struggling with their Judaism,”” she said, “I would prefer to see them maybe exploring their values through service to other people, rather than sitting at home on Friday night and lighting candles, because Judaism”s core principle is really to help others.”” Community service and the principle of “tikkun olam,”” repairing the world, are a central emphasis of the Jewish Civics Initiative course and Panim el Panim. The objective, program coordinators say, is to help students realize that they can fulfill a Jewish mandate and effect social and political change through involvement both inside and outside of the Jewish community. To that end, the students who attended the Panim el Panim program this month participated in community service projects throughout Washington, D.C. Some volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, while others traveled to an area school — where students explained Chanukah — and to a Vietnamese community center, where participants made flashcards for students learning English. “I think that everyone has an obligation to try to make a difference if you can,”” said Diane Appel, 16, a junior from Baltimore. “Helping in small ways like this — two hours of your time — is the least you can do.”” Appel, who loves acting, says the program has inspired her to use her skills to perform community service work, perhaps teaching theater at a youth center for underprivileged kids. “We want to use the talents we have to make a difference,”” she said. Erica Schwartz, 16, a sophomore who attends high school in New Haven, said her experience in Washington has energized her to try to get her friends involved in community service projects back home. “When you”re all there together,”” she said, “it doesn”t matter what you do.”” This month”s conference, which was typical of most of the Panim el Panim gatherings, also included lobbying sessions with members of Congress, briefings with policy experts and Jewish activists, a dialogue with local African American students, a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and study of Jewish texts. If the central idea behind the program is helping teens understand the relevance of Jewish values and teachings to the world around them, it is a realization that most appeared to be taking home with them. “Judaism isn”t just some old world religion where the men go behind the mechitzah and they pray and you don”t see any connection to it,”” Intrator of San Jose said, referring to the division in Orthodox synagogues between men and women. “It”s neat because you think, `Oh, wow. Here Judaism is dealing with issues that I”m dealing with every day. It has something to say on walking down the street and whether to give the poor man a dollar. “It does deal with those issues. It”s not just a bunch of far-off conceptual laws.””