Reform youths speak out on Capitol Hill

About 250 Jewish high school students from eight states spent three days in Washington last month to learn about issues on the Reform movement's legislative agenda.

At the culmination of the conference, the students descended on the Capitol, awkwardly clad in suits and skirts and toting loose-leaf notebooks, to voice their opinions in meetings with members of Congress from their respective states.

The Iowans chose to lobby in support of aid to Israel, federal hate crimes legislation and the Patients Bill of Rights.

The Religious Action Center, which serves as the Reform movement's public policy and lobbying mechanism in Washington, wants to teach youths how to promote Reform Jewish interests in Washington and their hometowns.

"Our job is to let members of Congress know about Jewish issues," Mark Pelavin, associate director of the center, told the students. "Without us, they can't do their job. It's true of 16-year-olds as much as it's true for 60-year-olds. If you have the ability, you have a responsibility."

Between 800 and 1,000 students attend such Reform conferences each year. The center will hold its next ones in February and March; those are already full.

Rabbi Peter Kasden of Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J., was one of the first leaders to bring Jewish students to the conference.

"Everything they do has to have a Jewish reason," Kasden said. "It's the idea of tikkun olam, heal the world, only they don't just learn it, they practice it. They will feel more adult when they leave."

Legislative assistants run the event as part of their yearlong fellowships at the center and coordinate discussions of current events they say few students understand when they arrive on Friday night.

"For a lot of them, they are thinking about stuff they never thought about before," Pelavin said. "We hope they leave here with an increased knowledge of what Jewish tradition says about current issues, increased knowledge of the current issues and understanding the ability each one of them has to make a difference."