“I have a voice. My voice is powerful. My voice can change the world.” These words, by Elana Arian, that we all sang together on the first night of Shabbat, truly set the tone for the weekend. It was an amazing feeling to walk into the hotel’s dining hall in Washington, D.C., for Shabbat dinner and know that I was surrounded by hundreds of Jewish high school students from across the country who share my values.
Each person in that room was there for a reason—we all wanted to make a difference in the world. We were all participants in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC)’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. I was lucky to travel to the capital with Rabbi Dr. Lisa Eiduson and six of my classmates and friends from Congregation B’nai Torah in Sudbury, for what turned out to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life.
The staff at L’Taken led numerous programs that prepared us all for our ultimate goal; lobbying a bill in Congress. We listened to motivational speeches, participated in lobbying simulations and attended seminars regarding important issues in our world today, such as reproductive rights, homelessness and mental health. In addition, we explored Georgetown and Pentagon Row, visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum and took part in a Saturday night Havdalah service outside the Jefferson Memorial.
The Havdalah service was truly moving and unlike anything I have ever experienced; it was incredible to be able to participate in the closing of Shabbat at a United States national monument in our country’s capital. We listened to words about Jefferson’s ideals and Jewish values while turning on our glowing candles in the darkness. We swayed together as we chanted familiar words along with the cantor: “I have a voice, my voice is powerful, my voice can change the world.”
On Sunday night we met with L’Taken staff and proceeded to write our speeches for Congress. My group decided to lobby for a bill that would require schools to provide students with mental health counseling. Our senators, Sen. Warren and Sen. Markey, and our representatives, Rep. Clark and Rep. Trahan, had not yet signed onto the bill, so our speeches were especially important. It was not until I stepped onto the lawn at Capitol Hill the next morning that I truly realized how much power I had to make a difference. Something my peers and I wrote could persuade a congressperson to vote for our bill and make dramatic changes in the lives of students needing mental health services.
The presentation of our speeches went very well; the staffers of our senators and representatives, with whom we met, gave us insight on what they thought about the issues we presented and gave us advice on how we could continue to share our voices. Afterward, all of the RAC participants met in a capitol courtyard to share the highs and lows of our lobbying experience and to conclude a wonderful weekend. It finally began to sink in for me that I had to go home and return to my everyday life. I had to say goodbye to my new friends and head off to the airport for my flight. But the memories I made and the lessons I learned will stay with me forever. Before we left, we sang the words one more time: “I have a voice, my voice is powerful, my voice can change the world.”
Leah Kotkin is a 10th grader at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School. This was her second year participating in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. She has been a madrichim at B’nai Torah’s Hebrew school for the past two years and serves as a STOP (Students Together Opposing Prejudice) junior facilitator. Leah has been doing ballet since she was 3 years old.
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