One day, as a few people were walking by the riverside, they saw babies floating down the river. Several people jumped into the river and started pulling the babies out to try to save them, but more and more babies kept coming faster and faster. One of the men jumped out of the river and someone screamed to him, “Where are you going?” He said, “I am going to see who is putting the babies in the river and try to stop them.” (Version from Congregation Beth Israel)
You know when you write or read a word too many times and it starts to look funny? Like – is that really how that word is spelled? Do I even remember what this word means? That happened to me this weekend with a word (or, more accurately, a transliteration of a word) that I previously hadn’t used very often: “l’taken.” L’taken is the name of the RAC’s program for high school-aged students who come to D.C. and learn about public policy issues, explore the Jewish values surrounding these issues and embody the skills of an effective advocate.
Editor’s note: Always good to hear about how the L’Taken Social Justice Seminars are inspiring today’s youth! Registration for the 2012-2013 season is still open – grab your congregation’s spot today!
Erev Shabbat Memorial Day weekend found me seated in the 115-year-old sanctuary of my home synagogue Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA, for our confirmation service. Unlike other Reform confirmations, ours marks a conclusion of our students’ religious education from pre-school through twelfth grade.
Several years ago, our rabbi, Jack Paskoff, proposed changing Confirmation from tenth to twelfth grades. In all honesty, I was a ‘traditional’ hold-out. “Reform Jews are confirmed in tenth grade!” I whined. But, as often is the case, Jack was absolutely on target. Today, tenth grade marks a rather insignificant milestone in our kids’ educational pursuits while twelfth grade usually denotes an ending and some sort of beginning.
This weekend, 300 Reform Jewish high school students descended on Washington, D.C., and Capitol Hill to participate in a Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar – a four-day conference on Jewish values and social justice. L’Taken is designed to expose teenagers to a variety of public policy issues and help them explore the Jewish values that inform the Reform Movement’s advocacy around these issues. Throughout the weekend, the RAC staff led large- and small-group programs, all with the goal of giving participants the knowledge and tools to write effective, persuasive, and passionate speeches to present to the offices of their Senators and Representatives at the end of the program.
In large groups, the students heard from former and current homeless individuals to learn about the faces behind the poverty numbers; played different roles in the political process to explore the ways in which money and multiple forms of advocacy interact to influence the process; and simulated a Knesset session to learn about the difficulties of achieving consensus within the Israeli political system. In small groups, the students learned about key pieces of legislation from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the extension of unemployment insurance, and studied issues ranging from comprehensive sexuality education to the protection and regulation of the environment.
On Monday morning, after three crazy, sleep-deprived days, the students traveled to Capitol Hill and presented their prepared lobby speech to the offices of their Senators and Representatives. While the rest of the weekend had been educational and fun, the highlight was hearing these students so articulately read their speeches and seeing the impression and influence that they left on the staff of their members of Congress—and sometimes on the Members of Congress themselves. I was traveling with a congregation from Los Angeles, and in the middle of our meeting with Representative Waxman’s office, the Congressman walked into the room to introduce himself. The teens did not miss a beat and eagerly rattled off the list of issues on which they had come to lobby (preventing bullying in schools, providing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, passing immigration reform, and guaranteeing access to abortion). He heartily agreed with all of their positions and expressed gratitude that they were taking seriously their responsibility as citizens and constituents to express their opinions.
This was my first time participating in a L’Taken seminar, and as a staff member I was impressed by the caliber of the participants and inspired by the passion and focus that they brought to their lobby speeches and programs. As I ate lunch on Monday in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria, a group of students all agreed that this weekend had given them the encouragement and courage to pursue careers in fields that would help others and right the wrongs in our political system.
I can’t wait to see the great things that each of the L’Taken participants accomplishes, based in part on the inspiration and knowledge that they discovered this past weekend. To see pictures from this weekend, check out our Facebook page, and like us on Facebook to keep up with the next five L’Taken seminars this winter!
Photo courtesy of the Religious Action Center.