Around the Jewish World: Orthodox Intern Program Trains Young Jewish Political Activists
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Around the Jewish World: Orthodox Intern Program Trains Young Jewish Political Activists

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They are some of the best and brightest in the Orthodox Jewish community, and over the past nine summers the Orthodox Union has been placing them near the heart of power in the nation’s capital.

This year, nearly 40 college students spent six weeks immersed in the Washington political scene through the O.U.’s summer internship program.

The program, which attempts to groom the next generation of activists to represent Orthodox Jewish interests in the political arena, places students in the offices of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, Jewish organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — even the Library of Congress.

While many young Jews intern in Washington during the summer, the O.U.’s program is the only one on Capitol Hill run by a Jewish organization.

“They certainly get a more intimate knowledge of politics and government,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, which chooses the select group from among hundreds of applicants.

“They come away with some substantive knowledge, they get to network a little bit, and hopefully, more than anything else, they get inspired to stay involved, both in politics and in Jewish communal life as well.”

Indeed, for students studying and preparing for careers in the public policy arena, the experience can prove invaluable.

“It really flushed out what you learn in political science classes,” said Karen Zelenetz, a 19-year-old sophomore at Columbia University in New York. “It gave a different dimension to text book material.”

Zelenetz worked for Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who represents her Brooklyn district. Her experience proved particularly exciting as she watched Schumer campaign for Senate, seeking to oust Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.).

“You become a real loyal fan of your congressman when he’s running, watching the polls and things like that,” she said.

For Joseph Levine, interning for Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, offered an opportunity not only to learn about the political process, but to make a contribution.

Levine, a 21-year-old junior at Columbia University from Los Angeles, spent most of his time researching and writing reports on legislative issues while also answering some constituent mail and helping draft an occasional letter to the vice president or secretary of state.

A highlight of his summer was spending a day with Gilman, who took him to a committee meeting, introduced him to foreign dignitaries in the hallways and brought him along for a visit to the White House.

“I think I have a real better understanding of how government functions, how politics works and what it means to get a bill through Congress,” Levine said.

“One thing that surprised me,” he added, “was how much the committee staff was really involved in the legislative process. Usually the congressman will say, `This is an issue I want to take care of,’ and the committee staffer will really take that issue to its end and write the legislation, gather signatures and make it happen, sometimes without the congressman really overseeing it much at all.”

In addition to their work experience, the O.U. staff brought the interns together for regular interactive sessions, including Shabbatons and Torah lectures by rabbis in the area.

“There’s a whole program built around what goes on in their daily internship activities,” Diament said.

Like most Hill internships, much of the interns’ day-to-day work is far from glamorous, including photo copying and clipping news reports.

“I wasn’t expecting an incredibly wonderful job of making policy,” said Daniel Pilarski, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Chicago from College Park, Md. “I expected it to be a lot of grunt work, but I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting things.”

A high point for him was meeting a variety of political figures at various events, including President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Working in one of the few congressional offices located in the Capitol building itself, Pilarski also ended up seeing far more than he might have bargained for.

He was in the Capitol when last month’s shooting occurred, one floor above the horrifying scene that left two police officers dead and a tourist seriously wounded. He was in the middle of faxing something when he heard “a lot of noise and bustling,” followed by a flood of tourists rushing into the office.

“They locked us in there for an hour and a half,” he said. “We didn’t really know what was going on but we knew there was a gunman in the building.”

“I was clearly kind of scared,” he said, adding that when he learned what happened he was grateful to be alive.

If the gunman had run up the stairs instead of going into House Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s office, “he would have come right where we are,” said Pilarski.

“I’m very grateful to those officers who gave their lives to help save my life.”

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