Cultivating the Next Generation of Jewish Social Justice Leaders: How a RAC Legislative Assistant Can Impact the Future

December 19, 2022Rabbi Marla J. Feldman

Whenever I see the notice that the Religious Action Center (RAC) is recruiting for Legislative Assistants (LAs), I immediately flash back to 1983 when I was an intern at the RAC. I was a rabbinical student in New York at the time and had been working as the advisor to CRaFTY ("City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth"). In that role, I helped staff the first NFTY Convention, at which then-RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein was a keynote speaker. That's where I first learned about the opportunity to intern at the RAC and immediately decided to apply for the following summer.

It was an amazing experience! I spent my time attending interfaith and interethnic coalition meetings, traversing the halls of Congress seeking signatories for various policy letters, and researching and writing a social action program guide on Soviet Jewry, which was a hot issue at the time. I particularly relished attending the diverse planning meetings for the 20th Anniversary March on Washington for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom. And a special highlight was an excursion to a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert, courtesy of Rabbi Saperstein's friendship with Mary Travers, with whom he and Al Vorspan, former director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, had recently visited refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union.

One particularly humorous memory was tooling around town in Rabbi Saperstein's little green convertible with another LA (who now works on the Hill for Congresswoman Pelosi) to obtain a last-minute permit to hold a Havdalah service at a memorial for a visiting congregational group. (The humorous part was that neither of us knew how to drive a stick shift, but please don't tell that to Rabbi Saperstein!) There were a few such groups that had stopped by the RAC during the summer when they were in D.C. with their congregations. Suddenly, an idea was born! What if we brought youth groups to the RAC, specifically to introduce them to Jewish justice ideals and advocacy, and maybe do a little touring along the way, rather than the other way around?

I was soon to be the student assistant rabbi at the Village Temple in NYC, so I discussed the idea with the rabbi, who enthusiastically agreed. Together with the youth director, then student rabbi Barney Brickner, we planned and executed what I now know is considered the very first L'Taken Seminar! Since that time, thousands of Reform Jewish youth have learned about social justice issues from a cadre of inspiring Legislative Assistants. They have lobbied their representatives on Capitol Hill, proudly lifting up their voices in the halls of power. And they have cultivated skills that empower them to be effective advocates throughout their lives.

Our initial foray into this program model was certainly not the same as it is today. The L'Taken Seminars have become an essential experience for Reform Jewish youth, made possible by a robust team of LAs, meeting planners, and chaperones. They employ a well-tested, masterful training program, and have decades of experience behind them. But that first adventure was obviously memorable… one of those participants was Rabbi Jonah Pesner, now Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism!

If one idea from one Legislative Assistant forty years ago could evolve into today's empowering L'Taken Seminars, imagine what today's Legislative Assistants might envision for our future! That's what I think of when I see that the RAC is recruiting for the next cohort of LAs. These young leaders will be the ones who will inspire and engage the next generation… and I know our future will be secure in their hands.

Applications are now open for the 2023-2024 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Program, a year-long fellowship for recent college graduates or individuals with equivalent academic and professional experience who are interested in Judaism, social justice, and public policy. The deadline to apply is February 21, 2023.

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