From the classroom to Capitol Hill: Local students learn advocacy in D.C.
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Guest columnistSome lessons are about putting Jewish values into action

From the classroom to Capitol Hill: Local students learn advocacy in D.C.

The students, who were participating in the L’taken Social Justice Seminar of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, focused on rights for people with disabilities.

Barbara Symons
Rabbi Barbara Symons, middle, is a spiritual leader at Temple David in Monroeville. Here, she is participating in the L'taken Social Justice Seminar of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Symons)
Rabbi Barbara Symons, middle, is a spiritual leader at Temple David in Monroeville. Here, she is participating in the L'taken Social Justice Seminar of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Symons)

Some lessons just can’t be learned in a classroom.

For some high school students and their parents, missing two days of school for a field trip is not worth the price. I can assure them that missing two days of school to attend a seminar such as the L’taken Social Justice Seminar of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is, as they say, priceless.

From a recent Friday afternoon through Monday morning, the days and nights were packed.

Celebrating Shabbat was surrounded with sessions about income inequality — hearing from a formerly homeless man about how lobbying works to a simulation that demonstrates the power of money and advocacy — and Israel’s political process, and visits to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian.

The main focus was on better understanding Jewish values through interactive text studies and hands-on sessions led by recent college graduates-turned-legislative assistants who have become experts in their areas.

This year, the topics spanned reproductive rights, immigration reform, climate change, gun violence prevention, church and state issues, voting rights, health care, LGBTQ rights, global health and disability rights. The topics came from the legislative agenda of the Religious Action Center, determined by the congregations of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The two confirmation students who attended from Temple David, Jacob Brand and Aaron Sloan, lobbied in Sen. Pat Toomey’s and Rep. Keith Rothfus’ offices for disability rights, having been motivated by a personal connection and speaking through the lens of Jewish values.

To quote their words: “I believe that you should use your power to oppose any ADA notification bills for many reasons, including because of its importance to our country. These types of bills should be opposed because approximately 22.5 percent of American citizens as of 2014 have a disability and the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R.620), if passed, will allow businesses to ignore the needs of the people that have disabilities.

“Other reasons why this is important to our country are that people living with disabilities lag behind employment rates, education completed, income, technology access, home ownership and voter participation. Further, because as Americans the Constitution guarantees us civil rights — but if this act is passed then it will cause people with disabilities to have to put their civil rights on hold.

“As Jews we believe that it’s important for this act to be opposed because we believe that it is our duty to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. Further, Leviticus commands us that we should not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.

This is basically saying that we as Jews should help the people living with disabilities, not create more struggle for them. As Jews we are obligated to ensure that all peoples have equal rights because we are all created in God’s image.”

The students — all 300 of them from across the United States (and this was only one seminar of many) — learned how to advocate for their values not only on Capitol Hill but in their states, home towns and schools. They did it with professionalism, poise and passion.

We teach our kids Jewish values. We model them. They learn about our American government in social studies and civics classes. For four days, these 10th-graders put their American and Jewish values into action. Lesson learned. PJC

Rabbi Barbara Symons is the spiritual leader of Temple David in Monroeville.

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