Temple Israel tenth graders visited Washington D.C. recently to take part in the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar, during which they explored the American political process, including lobbying and speechwriting.
The students, Courtney and Madison Bierman, Madison Eisenberg, Abby Schondelmeyer and Rachel Stoneking, spent the weekend of March 1-4 with about 200 of their peers from across the country, learning about political issues and how to effectively advocate for their side.
“We thought it was a sightseeing trip,” said Courtney Bierman.
It wasn’t until they landed in Washington that Rabbi Josh Brown told them they were going to get the opportunity to lobby Nebraska’s congressmen.
“Not a lot of kids who are 16 get a chance to lobby Congress, so that was very cool,” Courtney said.
On Saturday, they participated in a lobbying simulation in which half the students were pro-mining and the other half were against. They created TV ads and wrote speeches, and were graded on effectiveness by a panel of experts.
They also learned a valuable lesson in today’s political landscape: money talks. The side that had the most cash to push out its message won the simulation, which led to a discussion about campaign finance reform.
“Our downfall was, we didn’t give them enough money,” Abby Schondelmeyer said of the anti-fracking team. “Our advocacy was good, but we didn’t have enough money. It’s all about money and it’s sad. It’s really sad.”
Her teammate Courtney had a similar reaction.
“I didn’t know much about lobbying [before],” she said. “It’s kind of scary, that [money] has that much of an impact.”
The next day the students were again broken into groups, but this time each group represented one of Israel’s political parties. They experienced this parliamentary style of government up close, learning how difficult it can be to form a coalition when certain parties are intransigent in their views.
“We had to go around and try to negotiate with the other political parties and try to create a peace plan with the Palestinians,” Courtney said. “I didn’t know how hard it would be to come to an agreement. Every party had their own agenda.”
There were also panel discussions and seminars the students could attend, on topics ranging from LGBT rights in the workplace to stem-cell research to energy efficiency.
The culmination of the weekend’s activities came Monday when the group headed to Capitol Hill to visit its congressmen and women. The students met with staffers of Senators Deb Fischer and Mike Johannes, and got some face time with Representative Lee Terry.
“It was pretty intimidating,” Courtney said. “They were open and friendly. We kind of got used to it after the first meeting. They made it easy for us to talk to them. They weren’t hostile or anything, even when they disagreed with us.”
The students together wrote two policy speeches, on LGBT rights in the workplace and stem-cell research, and took turns reading portions of the speeches to the politicians or their aides.
“The LGBT bill we were talking about, they didn’t say flat out no to that one,” Courtney said. “But they pretty much all rejected the stem-cell research … I didn’t have super high expectation going in that we were going to change their minds, but it was frustrating.”
In between all the politics, the students, accompanied by Rabbi Josh Brown and Religious School Principal Ariella Lowensohn, were able to do a little sightseeing as well. They visited the International Spy Museum and the Smithsonian, as well as the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the newly erected Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Abby was particularly touched by the visit to the Holocaust museum.
“When I was younger, I would cry [about the Holocaust],” she said. “I couldn’t go into a place like that. Now I can go in, but it makes me feel like I want to punch something.”
When she was in 6th grade, Courtney traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, “but I was really jet lagged.” She was much more awake and alert this time.
“It was really moving,” she said. “I kind of walked out of the building in a daze because it was just so powerful.”
Courtney, who had visited Washington with her family last year, also enjoyed visiting the Smithsonian, especially the Museum of American History.
“There’s so much to see,” she said. “The last time I went, I really wanted to see the ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but we weren’t allowed in that section. But they were there this time. It was very cool to see such an iconic piece of American movie history.”
They had dinner in Georgetown, and did a little shopping, and joined the rest of the L’Taken students at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool for a Havdalah service.
L’Taken is a program designed by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to expose students to a variety of public policy issues, explore the Jewish values surrounding these issues and teach the skills of an effective advocate.
“We look forward to every one of our kids having this opportunity when they reach tenth grade,” Rabbi Brown said. “I know a few politicians who became interested in advocacy work after going to L’Taken and I look forward to seeing which of our kids who went on this trip goes that route in the future.”
Tenth grade is the year Temple Israel Religious School students are confirmed, which will take place this year on Tuesday, May 14, during the Erev Shavuot service.