What do you get when you mix 500 Jewish teenagers from around the country, 15 controversial social issues and the capital of our nation? The result is the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar hosted by the Religious Action Center (RAC).
As a member of this year’s confirmation class at Congregation Shaare Emeth, I was lucky enough to travel to Washington with 27 other sophomores from my synagogue in late January to take part in a L’Taken seminar.
Throughout the intensive weekend program, we were challenged to become more active within our communities and speak out for what we believe in. We had the opportunity to explore topics that interested us and, at the end of the weekend, we lobbied representatives and senators about issues for which we felt passionate.
“Being a Reform Jew is a big part of my life, and having the chance to go to Washington, D.C., with hundreds of other Reform Jews from across the country was an opportunity I just could not pass up,” said Cara Margolis from Main Line Reform Temple in Philadelphia.
I had been to Washington only once before, very briefly in 2011. Back then, I was not exposed to the diversity of America’s political beliefs like I am now. After following the election closely, I felt excited to be in the “room where it happens.” Throughout the weekend, D.C. was full of activism, and I felt privileged to witness the power of the people.
Following President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries, my congregation participated in a protest march at the White House and Capitol. After quickly making signs on leftover cardboard from the hotel, my friends and I joined a crowd of thousands exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Amid the protestors, I felt powerful and truly safe.
However, this was just an addition to the life-changing experience with the RAC staff. I learned how to peer through a Jewish lens when looking at larger conflicts, such as those of gun violence and reproductive rights, two of the issues I focused on over the course of the weekend. My friends and I participated in two shuks, the Jewish word for market, in which we learned how our religion applies to various social issues.
“During the reproductive rights shuk, I realized how important sexual education is to reduce unplanned pregnancies,” said Hannah Suffian, a sophomore at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and a Shaare Emeth congregant. “Some schools around the country provide abstinence-only education, in which students are not exposed to [information about sexually transmitted infections], sexual activity, or other options such as abortion and adoption.”
I found gun violence prevention to be a striking issue. After learning about it, I immediately knew that I wanted to discuss the issue at the final goal of the L’Taken seminar, which was lobbying at Capitol Hill. I wanted to explain why more thorough background checks would help gun violence protection.
I spent Sunday night vigorously typing a speech to present at the office of U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., the next morning. Like other teens at RAC, I began to understand the power I harness.
Cara said, “I became aware of what an impact I can have on the government and how I can share my Jewish values with our state representatives.”
On Monday morning, we awoke early and stepped into our most professional outfits. I felt excited to be presented with the opportunity to truly make a difference, yet nervous that we might not be taken seriously. Clutching the folder with my speech, I made the long walk up Capitol Hill in freezing weather, but I felt warm surrounded by new friends whom I had met during the trip, as well as ones I knew beforehand.
“While walking, I took a moment to look around and realize how much influence this trip really had on me,” Hannah said. “I had created lifelong friendships and felt positive on the difference that my speech could make to people around the country, regardless of their race, religion or background.”
To be truthful, my experience was not as effective as I imagined it to be. Instead of sitting around a conference table with all eyes on me, I spoke to a woman in the hallway of the House of Representatives. Other Congress people frequently walked through the meeting, and it diminished the speech that I had worked so hard to perfect.
However, just because my speech had not gone as planned does not mean that I will stop. After gaining first-hand experience in many of the issues of our society, I am determined to work hard and let my thoughts be heard. As a Jewish teenager, I believe that every voice is equal and can affect6 society in unbelievable ways.
L’Taken was just the first step of my journey to find justice within my community and outside of it.