Right before a recent trip to Washington, D.C., 16-year-old Ben Bernstein said he wasn't all that interested in politics. But after learning about lobbying, campaign-finance reform and even meeting with a congressman, Bernstein can safely say that politics is now on his radar screen.
Bernstein, and three other teenagers from Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, participated in the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L'Taken Seminar, sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which occurred Jan. 19 to Jan. 22.
During one activity, the more than 200 participants learned about lobbying firsthand, through the issue of universal health care. One group lobbied for health-care reform while the other lobbied against it, trying to sway the vote of three "senators" — played by chaperones. With fictional dollars, the groups spent money on writing letters, calling congressional leaders, setting up personal meetings and running TV commercials. The simulation even factored in asking for contributions from wealthy donors, as well as giving money to a senator's campaign.
In the end, the side against universal health care won.
"They got a taste of just what goes into trying to convince someone to vote a certain way," stated Rabbi Eric Lazar, religious leader at Brith Achim, who joined the group in Washington.
The students also got to tour the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, conduct a Havdalah service at the Jefferson Memorial, and learn about homelessness and other social issues.
Other area synagogues — like Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, and Congregations Keneseth Israel and Kol Ami in Elkins Park — are planning similar trips, according to Melissa Frank, a conference planner with the Religious Action Center.
On the final day of their excursion, the Brith Achim teens went to Capitol Hill to present ideas to aides of sitting congressional leaders. After a number of meetings, newly elected U.S. Representative Joe Sestak offered to talk with the teens. A couple of days later, they each received a handwritten letter from him thanking them for their opinions.
For Bernstein, the entire trip made him want to get more involved in politics. He and another participant were "thinking about volunteering on [Sestak's] campaign," he said. "I would like to, because I thought he was a really good person, but [I want to] get involved in general."