Linking justice to advocacy

At the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. during their trip for the Reform Action Center’s L’Taken Seminar: Front (L to R), Josie Buchanan, Amy Ostrow, Bronwyn Smith, Rabbi Judy Chessin. Standing, Evan Sherbet, Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz, Rachel Halasz, Alicia Ostrow, Corinn Herrick, Zack Halpern, Sam Pickard, Jack Jacobs, Addison Caruso. Not pictured: Ben Wacksman.

By Jennie Szink, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

When Evan Sherbet left Capitol Hill on Sunday, Jan. 22, he felt confident in the presentation he and his peers had just given on why legislators should uphold pro-choice laws.

But he stepped outside and was met by pro-life demonstrators holding signs — including students from Carroll and Chaminade Juilenne Catholic high schools from back in Dayton.

At that moment he understood what he should take away from the L’Taken Seminar he’d just attended.

“It showed that there are always two sides to every decision,” Evan said, “and sometimes you have to defend your point to have your voice be heard.”

Evan was one of five 10th-grade confirmation students from Temple Israel to join seven 10th, 11th and 12th graders from Temple Beth Or on a combined trip to Washington, D.C.

They were among students from nearly 30 other Reform congregations across the country to learn about public policy and social justice during a L’Taken Social Justice Seminar hosted by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The RAC is headquartered in D.C. and hosts students over several weekends during the year. Alan Halpern, Temple Israel’s executive director and sh’liach tzibbur (prayer leader), is a member of the RAC board.

Temple Israel confirmands have participated in L’Taken Seminars since 2004; this was Temple Beth Or’s first year of participation.

Rabbi Judy Chessin of Temple Beth Or and Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz of Temple Israel accompanied the teenagers.

“L’Taken means to repair,” Bodney-Halasz explained, “the idea coming from l’taken et ha’olam, to repair the world. It’s getting their foot in the door, trying to understand that they have the political efficacy to do something even before they can vote.”

Chessin said the RAC trip was the perfect way for students to learn more about which laws are in line with their faith, and to decide for themselves what they agree with when it comes to pressing social issues.

The trip was also an opportunity for students to study — outside of the classroom — the way the government works.

“The kids learned more than just Jewish practice,” Chessin said. “They will now know that their own voice means something and that they can always contact their senator and representative and at least be heard. The politician may not agree with their stance, but they learned that there is even value in standing up for a minority viewpoint.”

On one day of the trip, the students attended seminars about different key public policy issues currently being addressed in Congress.

Topics included abortion, stem cell research and bullying.

After they learned about the topics, they broke into groups to create informative, persuasive speeches based on their viewpoints.

The Dayton teenagers then lobbied staffers at the offices of U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, and Senators Sherrod Brown and Robert Portman.

RAC instructors spoke to the students about everything from what to wear when addressing legislators to how to make a convincing argument.

Chessin said it was impressive to watch the students develop well thought-out speeches in such a short amount of time.

“Many of the students didn’t dream that they could actually write an intelligent statement about a political bill or controversial social issue,” Chessin said. “However, once they got started they realized that they actually had something to say.”

For some issues, students drew from their own experiences to make their points convincing.

“They felt passionate about bullying and knew people who had been harmed by it,” Chessin said. “They had a relative who was ill and might benefit from scientific stem cell research.”

Temple Beth Or’s Bronwyn Smith worked with her peers to outline a presentation on embryonic stem cell research. She was able to deliver it to the House of Representatives.

“Stem cell research is a very controversial topic,” Smith said. “It felt important to me to address it because I thought it was neat that there are two very different viewpoints. I could see both sides, but it made sense to support it because that is the opinion of the Reform Jewish community. I gained a better understanding of how being Jewish relates to the issues of today.”

“No one ever expects for it to be as amazing as it is,” Bodney-Halasz said of L’Taken. “But then they go and it is actually transformational. I had one parent come up to me twice now since the trip to tell me, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to my child, but it is absolutely amazing. My child came home and thanked me for being a great Mom. My child come home, who never speaks and talked to me for an hour and a half about the experiences he had in Washington and that he had the opportunity to hear from and talk with people who had been homeless. And he learned about parts of the world and parts of life he had never known from a personal perspective.’”

While they spent much time on Capitol Hill, the students also explored the district. The teenagers from Dayton’s two Reform temples bonded during trips to several memorials, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Georgetown Cupcake.

“Hopefully,” Bodney-Halasz said, “they’ll understand that being Jewish is not just in a synagogue, it’s not just going down the street to help feed at a shelter or donate clothing, but there’s also actual justice that can be done through legislation and they can fight on another level as well. “

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