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Swords into plowshares

05/01/2018 03:03:58 PM


Ethan Lewis, TIPSY Co-President

At the end of April, Temple Israel hosted a program created by the Croton Houses of Worship called “Swords into Plowshares: Putting Spirit into Action to Reduce Gun Violence.” My colleagues from the Croton Clergy and I invited teens to speak at this program.  I asked Ethan Lewis, a Croton-Harmon High School senior and co-president of TIPSY (Temple Israel’s Program for Senior Youth) to speak about his experiences learning how to engage with elected officials when he was a member of Temple Israel’s confirmation class.  He wrote an excellent talk, one that is worthy of a larger audience.  I invite you to read it and kvell!

In the current climate, it can be easy to be swept away in a wave of bad news, lost in a cycle in fear and despair.  However, part of what makes life beautiful is the human response to tragedies and the continual drive for progress. Solutions to the problems facing society are never perfect, nor easy, and without the right tools, change can be hard to achieve. But although our current situation may sometimes seem entrenched and stagnate, change always occurs, and the world never stops moving forward.

My name is Ethan Lewis, and today I will discuss my experience lobbying in Washington DC with my Confirmation class, the lessons I learned and the skills I acquired, as well as more recent advocacy at my school.

At this Temple, religion is put in the context of our environment, and a key focus of my confirmation year was how ancient Jewish tenets and beliefs can guide modern life and be compatible with current philosophies and norms. We discussed current events, analyzed historic religious documents, and the role American Jews must play as “gate guards,” making sure the world’s long history of prejudice and violence does not permeate here.

At the end of January 2016, I embarked on an early morning bus ride to Washington, along with 7 other members of my confirmation class, our teacher Guy Felixbrodt, and our Rabbi. We were headed to the highlight of our studies that year, the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar, hosted by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy arm of the Reform Judaism movement. Hosted on multiple winter weekends, it is an opportunity to learn about the lobbying process, and to gain the tools necessary to be a successful advocate within the context of the Jewish community for Jewish Teens.

When we arrived, we were thrown right into our four-day political crash course. The first stage, a key component in any young advocates education, was a series of seminars, lectures, and discussions on the behind the scenes mechanics of lobbying. We learned about civic institutions, and how change and social progress does not necessarily come from changes in government but instead can come from supporting charities, shifting social norms and business policy. Today, we can see this in the most dramatic accomplishment of the March for Our Lives movement, the raising of the purchasing age from 18 to 21 and the cessation of the sale of automatic weapons at major brands like Walmart and Dick’s, done without a single piece of legislation.  

We were able to register for three classes based on our interest, focusing on educating the program's teens on various pressing issues, the K-Street process and a roadmap for Capitol Hill success.  Even with the rush of activities, we still had time to visit the MLK memorial, dine in Georgetown, and participate in a very moving candlelit Havdalah ceremony, marking the end of Shabbat on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial.

One of the most fascinating portions of L’Taken was a simulation on the gun control debate. Teens in the seminar, most of whom where liberal pro-reform advocates, were arbitrarily separated into two groups, those who would push for, and against a proposed piece of legislation. For two hours, we created signs, came up with slogans, speeches, and arguments for and against the bill. We then came together to host a town hall-style conversation with mock members of Congress and present our work. Much to my surprise, the anti-reform group won handily. Their clear message, vigorous showing of support, and clout as a voting block put them in a position of power. (Not to mention the much larger sum of money they had to get their message out.)  It became clear to me at that point that just as gun access was the top priority of gun proponents, a litmus test on their elective representatives and something that they would show up in force to defend, the same would have to be true for the pro-reformers before they would achieve success. More organization and passion are needed. Recent trends have pointed towards a shift in that direction, but it is far too early to tell if the movement can be sustained and leave a permanent impact on the American psyche.

After we were thoroughly educated on the delicate art of lobbying, the time had come to put our skills to use. The Religious Action Center had arranged for short meetings with the offices of Representatives and Senators, whose constituents were taking part in the seminar. In light of the nature of politics, we focused on the Congressmen and women who represented us, even when they supported our views, as we had as far more influence when we came from their home region.  Importantly, we were not pushed onto a topic we did not support. Instead, we were encouraged to work with other student advocates on a topic of shared interest. Students at the seminar collaborated on issues ranging from education funding to abortion access.  In one caffeine-infused intense evening, clear, concise and collaborative speeches, where drafted, rehearsed and revised.

The principles used in comprising these speeches are relevant to anyone planning on lobbying in government. No general call for “gun control” or catchy phrases like “equal rights for all!” Instead, we pursued a specific bill, already on the table and with bipartisan backing from legislators. For me, LGBTQ+ rights was an important issue given my many friends in the community, and as such I, along with two other teens from congressional district 17th, decided to advocate for The Equality Act, H.R 3185. We carefully researched our representative, Nita Lowey, and her position on the bill, making sure to express our gratitude for her sponsoring of the bill, while also calling on her to jump-start the stalling campaign, and encourage more of her fellow Democrats to get on board.

On the fourth day, the whirlwind of events, seminars, and writing reached its culmination. Ascending the steps of the Capitol, we toured the building before entering the Senate offices across the street via a special underground subway. There some of the confirmation class addressed representatives of Kristen Gillibrand before we were off to Nita Lowey. One of the proudest moments of my life was speaking to her press sectary in the halls of Washington, advocating for what I believed in. With our work finished, we took one last look at DC and were off, on the long trip home.

Although two years have passed, I find the knowledge I gained on that trip to be more relevant than ever. On March Fourteenth, I walked out of my high school along almost the entirety of the school in protest to the continued inaction of our leaders to resolve the recent rash of shootings, in schools and beyond. The organizational process and lobbying skill taught by groups like the Religious Action Center to teens will be key in helping mold a new generation of shapers and changers and achieve lasting legislative success. One of the other students on that trip, Lexi Rudley, was instrumental in planning the Ossining March for Our Lives, no doubt using some of the public speaking and writing skills she picked up on the trip. All of my Confirmation class found L’Taken to be a powerful experience, and it is my hope that more will learn about the important processes behind creating change. Confirmation classes here at Temple Israel continue to schlep to DC each January and hopefully will continue to do so for the far future.   (Ethan Lewis)

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780