Teens make connection between Judaism, social action

WASHINGTON — Jewish teenagers are discovering how to look at social and public policy issues through Jewish eyes.

This year, nearly 1,000 Jewish high school students from across the country visited Washington, D.C., to participate in Panim el Panim, a four-day leadership seminar that gives students a "face-to-face'' look at the Jewish public policy agenda and the political process.

Most participants are like Joel Nickerson, 17, of San Mateo, who wanted to "learn how Jewish values are integrated into our government" and to discover how he can "give back to my community."

The San Mateo High School senior stuffed envelopes at a Washington organization called Stand for Children, met with officials at California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer's office to study her policy positions and talked to President Clinton's Jewish liaison, Jay Footlick.

"It gave me an opportunity to see how politics work," said Nickerson.

Some 4,000 students in 90 communities have done the same since Panim el Panim was launched in 1988 by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values.

The program is now part of a pilot Jewish Civics Initiative course in nine communities nationwide.

The program aims to give teens an opportunity to see Jewish tradition as "compelling and relevant to the lives that they're engaged in," said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Washington Institute president.

The institute runs the civics program with the Jewish Education Service of North America. The course aims to provide continuity at home for the lessons learned in Washington, Schwartz said.

"The fact that they're thinking about issues that are going to affect their community and their world and that they'll think about issues framed in Jewish ways is something that does not happen in their very paltry Hebrew school experience."

At this year's first Panim el Panim conference, there was abundant evidence of heightened enthusiasm for Jewish action.

Tayla Lazarow, a 17-year-old senior from San Diego, was surprised to see the depth of Jewish public engagement.

"Even though we're 2 percent of the population, we double that number in terms of our voting," Nickerson said after hearing from an American Israel Public Affairs Committee official and from Clinton's Jewish liaison. "It makes me proud to be a Jew."

Jessica Intrator, 17, a San Jose high school senior, felt that the program showed many ways to express Jewishness.

"If I was speaking to a friend who was struggling with their Judaism," she said, "I would prefer to see them maybe exploring their values through service to other people, rather than sitting at home on Friday night and lighting candles, because Judaism's core principle is really to help others."

Community service and the principle of tikkun olam (repairing the world) are the program's watchwords. Program officials say they want to help students realize they can meet a Jewish mandate by making social and political change inside and outside the Jewish community.

Panim el Panim participants in Washington volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, discussed Chanukah in a local school and helped teach English at a Vietnamese community center.

They also held lobbying sessions with members of Congress, met policy experts and Jewish activists, spoke with African American students, visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and studied Jewish texts.

"Judaism isn't just some old-world religion where the men go behind the mechitzah and they pray and you don't see any connection to it," Intrator said.

"It has something to say on walking down the street and whether to give the poor man a dollar."