By Jemi Kostiner Mansfield, Congregation Beth Israel
In early December 2011, fourteen 10th grade students from Congregation Beth Israel traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L'Taken Social Justice Seminar at the Religious Action Center (RAC). L’Taken, an intensive four-day kallah that focuses on Jewish values and social justice, brought the Beth Israel teens together with over 200 students from across the country and culminated with lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill, wherein the students presented prepared speeches on a variety of topics to their representatives.
Absent from his office that day was 3rd District Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose able Legislative Assistant met instead with the Portland group. Disappointed that he’d missed visiting with the Beth Israel students, Rep. Blumenauer arranged to make a special visit to the class during a recent Wednesday night session of Midrasha. Recreating their lobbying experience - including wearing their “Hill Clothes” in some cases – the 10th graders presented their speeches to Rep. Blumenauer while proud parents looked on. The 9th grade students and parents were also invited to learn more about L’Taken and what they will experience next year.
The speeches - presented in small groups, with each student taking turns to read - covered a variety of current legislative topics, including women’s health, anti-bullying, stem cell research, and climate change. Congressman Blumenauer listened thoughtfully to each group’s presentation before responding. He thanked the students for their impassioned and well-organized speeches, complimenting their teamwork and dedication to the causes.
In many cases the use of personal reflections made the speeches more compelling. The congressman praised this tactic, reiterating that legislative decisions made today will impact them the most. “If we don’t meet the challenge of climate change then YOU will bear the consequences more than the current members of the Senate,” he stated.
The 10th grade students were aware of the honor shown to them by the congressman’s special Midrasha visit. “It was cool that he came just to hear us speak,” said Nathan Schloss, whose presentation dealt with stem cell research. “I liked that he was open to our ideas and related to us – he know where we were coming from.” Nathan added that the trip to Washington, D.C. was a very good opportunity for him to see and learn firsthand how the country is run.
There was enough time for a brief Q & A session, during which the students were able to pepper the congressman with questions about his background and time in Washington. Rep. Blumenauer shared how he first became involved politically as a student campaigner to lower the state voting age from 21 to 18, later working on the Constitutional Amendment in 1971.
Reflecting on the long career that followed, he jokingly warned the students, “Be careful how involved you get!” At the same time, he also advocated finding ways to engage young people, emphasizing the importance he places on their input. “It’s amazing how much time can be given to young people with a sincere, heartfelt message,” he concluded. “They will have a great impact on future policy making.”
The RAC is the political branch of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the parent organization of the Reform Movement. Confirmation classes from Beth Israel have attended the seminar annually since 1995 through the generous support of various donors. This year’s trip was partially underwritten by the Lloyd B. Rosenfeld Leadership Fund.