Just as teenagers around the country are preparing for summer vacation 21 teens from Congregation Beth Israel are getting a reminder that they answered the plea "If not now, when?" and took steps to change the world.
The teens are sophomore members of Temple Beth Israel in Portland who attended the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's L'Taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, D.C., this January. From January through March more than 2,000 Jewish teens gather to share their views on social justice topics with decision makers on Capitol Hill.
The 21 teens included Natalie Peterman and Mallory Gradow of Lakeridge, Margo Sidline of Lake Oswego High and Audrey and Abigail Minch, who attend West Linn High. Accompanying the teens were Senior Rabbi Michael Cahana, Associate Rabbi Rachel Joseph, Director of Education Ben Sandler and Director of Youth Engagement Shoshanna Pro.
"L'taken" in Hebrew means to correct or to repair. It is the infinitive verb form of the gerund "tikkun" — as in "tikkun olam," or repairing the world.
The L'Taken program is designed to both expose teens to a variety of public policy issues and explore the Jewish values that inform the Reform Movement's advocacy around these issues, Joseph explained. The teens attend programs Friday and Saturday on a range of topics, including Israel, the environment, reproductive rights, LGBTQ civil rights, church/state separation, international relations and more. They then had to lobby each other for which topics they would present to the legislators.
"They were so passionate, trying to get their friends to go with their ideas," Joseph said.
She said the teens learned quickly about the issues and then applied a Jewish perspective on how they were important in the United States.
Sunday was spent with RAC staff and legislative assistants who helped write persuasive and passionate speeches to present to senators and representatives on their topics, climate change and public health. They made presentations on the Monday morning of their trip.
"I was lobbying to raise awareness of the health issues caused by global warming," Abby Minch said. "I know a lot of people have gotten confused to what this means so I wanted to clarify. The goals of my speech were to raise awareness of the issues global warming is causing in our health which will hopefully show people that global warming needs to be fixed and that is not just a story."
"I really enjoyed the ability to talk to our congressional representatives and their staff as well as visiting the monuments around D.C.," Peterman said. "I was surprised at how seriously we were taken during the meetings. Nobody dismissed us as uninformed teenagers who didn't know what they were talking about. Through this experience I became more confident about interacting with people in a professional environment."
"The most memorable part of the trip was when we went to Georgetown," Abby Minch said. "I liked the independence we got as well as being able to explore a new city. The most impactful was walking through the hall to the representatives and seeing all the people who worked there and had an impact on America today. The most surprising was how nice the representatives were because I thought they were going to be very strict. I learned that anyone can have an impact on America no matter how old you are or how much education you have."
For Audrey Minch, the most memorable part of the trip was a visit to the Holocaust Memorial "because it was so powerful."
"The most surprising part was how easy it was to talk to the congressmen/women's staff. They weren't intimidating and it was a really comfortable experience," she said. "In the future, I will definitely remember that what I say matters and that I can work to make change happen."
L'Taken gives the teens an opportunity to broaden their Jewish community, as they meet teens from other regions of the U.S.
"Coming from a city with such a small population of Jews, being in D.C. for a seminar comprised of other Jewish teenagers was a wonderful experience," Margo Sidline said. "Being able to have a public service at the Jefferson Memorial and say a mourner's prayer in public at the Holocaust Museum was an experience I'd never had before. I loved being able to explore social justice and political activism in a space that was so welcoming and accepting of my friends and me.
"The D.C. Holocaust Museum was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had," Sidline continued. "Everyone there clearly felt the gravity of what we saw, and while it was incredibly sad, it was also so inspiring. I feel more connected to my community and my ancestry and proud to represent such a strong history. We received wristbands from the museum that had 'What you do matters' printed on them, and I still wear mine every day."
"This is different than school, where you sit with your same group of friends every day," Joseph said. "Here they sit with new friends — other Reform Jews — and learn what life is like in their region of the country."
Sandler and Joseph served as hall monitors at the hotel and saw how exhausted the teens were after a day on Capitol Hill.
"We come the furthest, since we're on the West Coast," said Rabbi Joseph. "And for our students to take three days off school is a big deal. They all have commitments. But they all see the value in attending and living out our values in the world."
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Democrat from Oregon's First District, was not in Washington D.C. when the students lobbied, so she visited Congregation Beth Israel on April 17, and the students made their presentations to her. Bonamici shared with them progress and challenges on the issues.
Sidline shared that she was most surprised to witness the clear divisiveness between the political parties.
"It's one thing to hear about the partisanship of our leaders, and a complete other thing to hear my congressman speak so blatantly and negatively about the other party's opinions and actions," she said. "As a young student, I had gone in thinking that our conversations would be balanced and accepting of all viewpoints, but that was not the case."
Sidline also said that the experince gave her direct insight into what making change looks like.
"I was advocating for a bill that would introduce comprehensive sexuality education programs into schools all across the country, which is something that could affect my peers and me directly," she said. "I felt like I was really heard every time a staff member would nod along or write something down or ask a question and that feeling has encouraged me to remain engaged. My rabbi told us that after this experience he can't foresee any of us being passive or apathetic in our interaction with the government. I think he's right."
"This will help our teens think more deeply as Jewish adults," Joseph said.
As juniors, the teens will spend the year focusing on comparative religions. They will meet with a variety of religious leaders and travel to different religious sites. They will also be eligible for scholarships to travel to Israel.
To learn more, visit www.bethisrael-pdx.org.