High school students from around the state gathered at Rutgers University to learn how to advocate for both the Jewish community and their neighbors.
At the Reform Jewish Youth Advocacy Summit, held March 10 at the student center on the College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick, several dozen teens heard from academic, political, student, and religious leaders.
They also had group discussions led by Rutgers Hillel student leaders.
The summit was cosponsored by Hillel, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, and Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey, affiliated with the movement’s Religious Action Center.
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker of Rutgers Hillel’s Reform outreach initiative told students that “participating in the life of the city” had its roots in the Talmud.
“It is a Jewish responsibility to engage with not only the Jewish community but also your non-Jewish neighbors,” he said.
RJVoice cochair Rabbi Joel Abraham, religious leader of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, said that many federal initiatives had their beginnings at the state level.
In the last year, RJVoice has advocated for marriage equality, environmental issues, hunger relief, affordable housing, and health-care reform.
Liz Cohen of Princeton, Abraham’s cochair, said students from across the state were invited to the event.
“I came because I wanted more knowledge of the issues, especially human rights issues,” said senior Mike Russo of Chester. “It doesn’t get enough attention in the media worldwide.”
Amanda Eastman, a sophomore from Dumont, said she wanted to understand the issues surrounding gun control. “I want to educate my friends,” she said. “I don’t think they understand what gun control really is. They think they’re trying to get rid of the Second Amendment.”
Annika Seiden, a sophomore from Tenafly, said reproductive rights and access to birth control for women were her main focuses. “It is so important; we need to find ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies. People should not be forced to have children they don’t want,” she said.
NJ Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Dist. 14) told the students that even at their young age they could influence elected officials. Elected a member of the council in his hometown of Hamilton at 25, Benson also served as a Mercer County freeholder. He explained the roles of various elected officials and constituent services, and guided the students on how to catch the interest of an elected representative and how to find common ground with those whom they may disagree with.
Benjamin Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, gave participants an overview of NJ politics, from citizens’ fierce attachment to home rule — there are 565 towns, more per square mile than in any other state — to voters’ tendency to vote “blue” in federal elections (because of progressive social views) and “purple” on the state level (because of concern about taxes).
Dworkin also spoke about Jewish values.
“Being Jewish shapes the way you enter politics,” he said. “It shapes who you are. If you want to do tikun olam, to repair the world, you have to have a vision that’s different.”
He recalled how in 1993, when the organizers of New York’s Salute to Israel Parade banned a gay and lesbian synagogue from marching, it was members of movement youth groups who sent a strong message.
“Young people from USY and NFTY and wherever, as they always do, were leading off the parade, singing and dancing,” said Dworkin. “However, they were wearing pink armbands and, as they passed the reviewing stands, they were silent. A bunch of 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds sitting around a living room made tikun olam come to life.”