Behind the Headlines: Jewish High School Kids Get a Taste of D.c. Politics

“Yes, there are Jews in Iowa.” And to make sure his senator’s staff realized that, Eliot Garfield walked into Tom Harkin’s office wearing the slogan scrawled across the bottom of his name tag.

By the time the seven Jewish high school students from Iowa reached their Democratic senator’s office, they were experienced lobbyists on the three issues they discussed at the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken conference.

The conference brought 250 Jewish high school students from eight states to Washington on a recent weekend to learn about issues on the Reform movement’s legislative agenda.

At the culmination of the conference, the students descended on Capitol Hill, awkwardly clad in suits and skirts and toting loose-leaf notebooks, to voice their opinions in meetings with members of Congress from their respective states.

The Iowans chose to lobby for aid to Israel, in favor of federal hate crimes legislation and in support of the Patients Bill of Rights.

Harkin did not attend the meeting. But Garfield reminded his legislative assistants of the importance of a patients rights bill, which the senator supports, by quoting a passage from a work Maimonides wrote in the 12th century.

“Though the text is from the 12th century, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be at the top of society’s agenda today,” Garfield argued.

Melissa Werner told Harkin’s aides that her family has problems getting insurance because of a “pre-existing condition” no one in her family has anymore.

While the senator’s legislative assistant for health care reform, Tom Vinson, wrote down Werner’s address and phone number to contact her family, he said the office does not usually hear from “the people who support bills, because they figure, `Harkin supports that bill, he doesn’t have to hear from me.’ But we do.”

Rabbi Debby Hachen of Westboro, Mass., said students walked away with an understanding of how complex it is to get a piece of legislation through Congress, but also how one individual can make a difference in light of how few people speak up.

But like the rest of Washington, this group could not escape the debate over President Clinton’s impeachment. The students gathered for the closing of the conference in a room just doors away from where the House Judiciary Committee was holding the impeachment hearings.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) “asked us our position on the impeachment process when we were done stating our issues,” 16-year-old Garfield said. “We gave him seven no’s.”

The Religious Action Center, which serves as the Reform movement’s public policy and lobbying mechanism in Washington, aimed to teach the students how to promote Reform Jewish interests in Washington and their hometowns.

“Our job is to let members of Congress know about Jewish issues,” Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center, told the students. “Without us, they can’t do their job. It’s true of 16-year-olds as much as it’s true for 60-year-olds. If you have the ability, you have a responsibility.”

Congregations brought adults and children to the center’s Washington office as early as 1973 to learn how and why Jews lobby on the Hill, said Rabbi Mark Israel, director of congregational relations.

In the 1980s, the center made the weekend seminar more formal, and numbers began to climb to the level they stand at today — about 800 to 1,000 students every year.

The center plans two more conferences, in February and March, but they are already full. It wants to increase the number of programs to six and decrease each conference’s attendance to 200. That way more students could participate and the size of the groups would be more manageable.

Rabbi Peter Kasden of Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J., was one of the first leaders to bring Jewish students to Washington. Kasden said he was tired of going to New York on trips that took students to Broadway shows, dinner and some museums, when he could bring his students to Washington for an entire weekend for $25 — a cost that has since risen.

“Everything they do has to have a Jewish reason,” Kasden said. “It’s the idea of tikkun olam, heal the world, only they don’t just learn it, they practice it. They will feel more adult when they leave.”

Legislative assistants run the conference as part of their yearlong fellowships at the center and coordinate discussions of current events they say few students understand when they arrive on Friday night.

Brian Leiken, a legislative assistant at the center said, “They’re starting to realize there is a world outside of their school worlds.”

From Friday night to Sunday, the conference packed the students with information on current issues in Congress, and the result — exposing students to the issues they are almost able to vote on — shows just how pivotal an experience the weekend is, Pelavin said.

“For a lot of them, they are thinking about stuff they never thought about before,” he said. “We hope they leave here with an increased knowledge of what Jewish tradition says about current issues, increased knowledge of the current issues and understanding the ability each one of them has to make a difference.”

But perhaps because of the impeachment controversy, some students from New Jersey said they know now that politics is not for them.

“I just don’t think politics is a very positive area,” Courtney Darrow of Temple Emanu-El said in light of President Clinton’s battle with Congress.

Aside from lessons learned on Capitol Hill, many students left with new friends and fresh experiences.

“We come from a small Jewish community of 150 families and only 60 children in the religious school,” said Margi Rogal, a parent chaperone for the students from Iowa. “It’s good to have our kids exposed to other Jewish kids, because most of their friends aren’t Jewish.”

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