By Aron Rose
From February 27 to March 2, I had the opportunity to fly down to Washington D.C to join a group of 350 Jewish teenagers from all over the country to take part in the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. I went with a few other students and represented my temple, Congregation Shalom of Chelmsford MA. The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism educates the global community on social and legislative issues, including civil rights, Israel, LGBT equality, and much more. The purpose of our seminar was exactly that - to educate young Reform Jewish teenagers from all over the United States on current social issues, and ways to resolve them. It was a good experience to simply get the chance to talk to other teenagers who are also interested about fixing global social issues. I met kids from all over the country, and they loved hearing about our historical winter snowmageddon (especially the ones from California and New Mexico)! The people from Washington state were still upset about the Super Bowl too! One of my highlights of the seminar included a guest speaker from the National Coalition for the Homeless named Steve. I was nearly brought to tears. He shared with us his life story about growing up in Washington D.C, about how he didn't have any friends because he was the “fat” kid, about how he didn't fit in, and about how his mother often beat him and told him to get out of her life. His mother kicked him out of the house days after graduating high school and told him to never come back, and he was homeless for many years. Instantly he received a long standing ovation from everyone, and rightly so. To see Steve in good shape today, now speaking about ending homelessness and hunger worldwide, was an incredible feeling.
The most exciting part about the seminar was getting the chance to pick a social issue to write about, and to lobby on Capitol Hill to our own state officials. I learned from attending the session on disability rights the astonishing fact that 56 million Americans suffered from some sort of physical or mental disability, and that there is not enough federal support and protection for people with disabilities. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a giant leap towards civil rights for people with disabilities, but the ADA is not enough, and recent Supreme Court Changes have limited the protections once offered by the ADA. I worked with another student to write a lobbying speech about disability rights. We mentioned how people with disabilities still lag behind the national average in education completed, employment rates, income, technology access, home-ownership, and voter participation. This is both a cause and effect of unequal access to transportation, health care, education, and affordable housing. These issues factor into the high poverty rate for people with disabilities. In July 2009, the U.S signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This convention is based on the ADA, and the CRPD marks an international effort to bring the world closer to equality for people with disabilities. While the CRPD was signed, it still needs to be ratified by the Senate in order for the U.S to be part of it. In December 2012, the U.S Senate voted on CRPD, but the result was 6 votes shy of ratification. We were shocked and angered by this.
It was a great experience to walk on Capitol Hill on a sunny yet brisk Monday morning, experiencing what it would be like to go to work in that environment. We walked into the Russell Senate Office Building, directly across from the Capitol Building, where all the kids from Massachusetts spoke to advisers to both of our senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. I was quite nervous for presenting our speech, but when I realized that this is an important social issue that needs to be fixed, my nerves went away. We stood 10 feet away from our advisor, and I looked deeply into his eyes to make sure he got our message. After reading, he reiterated that disability rights is an important issue, and that Markey will vote for ratification if the CRPD vote comes up again. After everyone spoke, our group walked over to the Longworth House Office Building to go inside Congresswoman Niki Tsongas’ cozy office. Again, we spoke to one of her advisers, and we all read our same speeches. Similar to what Warren and Markey’s advisers said, Tsongas’ adviser told us that she is definitely in support of disability rights, and she appreciated us coming out to lobby for these important issues.
I will never forget the experiences I learned on this amazing trip. While it was a brief trip, I learned so much about global social issues, how to come up with solutions, and how to get involved in supporting these issues (making donations, community education, etc). Not very many teenagers get to lobby in person to their own state senators and representatives, and I was so grateful for this opportunity. I know for a fact that I returned home from this trip with a better perspective and education on global social issues. I’m glad that every single kid on this trip had a chance lobby about their social issue on Capitol Hill, and for me to be able to participate in a seminar of this level, it was an experience I will truly never forget.