Orthodox teens take lobbying lessons to Sacramento

The lobbyists fanned out across the California Capitol, pressing their case with lawmakers. However, unlike most influence peddlers, they were teens and the boys wore yarmulkes.

The nine East Bay Orthodox teens were in Sacramento on Feb. 12 meeting with legislators to discuss some hot-button issues — ranging from gun violence to anti-Semitism on college campuses.

The day was the culmination of a new, six-week initiative dubbed the Teen Advocacy Program. The brainchild of East Bay NCSY and the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, TAP was designed to teach leadership skills to Orthodox teens, filtered through the lens of Jewish values.

In Sacramento, NCSY teens (from left) Hannah Feiner, Avigayil Edelman and Leor Schiffer talk to a legislator. photo/robin michelini

Rabbi Akiva Naiman, the East Bay director for NCSY (formerly National Conference of Synagogue Youth), spearheaded and coordinated the program. “Everyone is looking to empower teens beyond collecting cans of food for shelters,” he said. “[TAP] is certainly unique, and speaks to a wide spectrum of kids.”

Before the trip to Sacramento, the five girls and four boys met weekly in the board room of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. They studied relevant Jewish texts and heard from guest speakers such as Myrna David (East Bay director for the Jewish Community Relations Council) and Matt Gabe (AIPAC’s East Bay director).

“We taught them that there isn’t just one solution for every problem,” said Naiman, who has run the teen program from Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland for nearly two years. “Also that no solution is a 100 percent fix.”

One of the participants, 16-year-old Eli Levin of Piedmont, found the program trained him well. In one session the students engaged in role-playing, simulating a sit-down with a Sacramento lawmaker.

“We were given a bill to read up on, then our job was to introduce ourselves,” Levin recalled. “We had to think about the kind of common courtesy that existed back in the day, referring to [adults] as sir or ma’am. I think it should still exist. We needed to be reminded we were meeting with people who are exceedingly busy.”

Finally the big day arrived. Team TAP piled into a van and headed to Sacramento. Once there, they met with a bevy of legislators or their aides, most of them Democrats representing districts in the East Bay: Senators Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock and Assembly members Rob Bonta, Joan Buchanan and Nancy Skinner.

The students discussed issues of importance to them, such as school safety and curbing gun violence. Armed with talking points, they pushed pending bills that would track gun sales and put taxes on ammunition purchases.

Roaming the halls of the capitol between meetings, the students were approached by Travis Allen, a Republican assemblyman from Orange County. He asked them why they had come to Sacramento.

“He gave us a really cool pep talk,” Naiman recalled. “He said there are 37 million people in California, yet because we care and came to speak our minds, that’s important.”

Levin quickly warmed up to the task of lobbying. While meeting with Bonta’s chief of staff to discuss combating anti-Semitism, Levin brought up the fact that Bonta had voted for anti-bullying legislation in the past.

“I said anti-Semitism is a form of bullying, and [Bonta] is against bullying. The chief of staff took note of that, and I have since emailed the assemblyman.”

The day wrapped up at a celebratory dinner that night at Beth Jacob. In front of parents and friends, the teens talked about their experience, then Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb presented the participants with certificates.

Naiman hopes to do a TAP program again next year and perhaps replicate the program at other NCSY chapters around the country.

Meanwhile, Levin is one satisfied customer.

“It’s a great program and one I’d recommend because it provides skills that you otherwise might not have,” he said. “[TAP] teaches leadership in lobbying, which is a big deal. For me it opened a new door, not to mention what it looks like on college resumes.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.