The Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) 18-member Teen Israel Leadership Council group — all high school juniors — spent two days in Washington, D.C. last month, lobbying for security and defense funding for Israel, with successful results! Here is one teen’s personal account of the experience.
The arched ceiling shimmers in the D.C. sunlight pouring in from the windows. People pass in blurs of suits and jackets and clicking heels. Outside, on a bright May morning, a trans rights march moves joyfully along. The scene in front of us represents American democracy. I feel important just standing here, at the center of government for one of the most powerful countries in the world, as part of Federation’s Teen Israel Leadership Council cohort advocacy trip.
Looking around at the other Jewish teens with me, I suspect they feel the same way. Without any word or instruction, the entire group has stopped momentarily, paralyzed in awe of the sheer weight of the building in which we are standing. Members of the House of Representatives are in these very halls, meeting with constituents, drafting bills, and working to make the country a better place. It seems only natural to imagine ourselves doing the same. Less than five minutes in this building has already made us feel like we could one day be the nations’ decision makers.
We’re nervous, sure. Many of us (including myself) have never lobbied to congresspeople before, but there’s a comfort in knowing we believe wholeheartedly in what we have to say, that our love for Israel is so strong it has brought us here to the center of democracy on a random school day in May.
This comfort keeps us calm while we make our way towards the representatives’ offices, even as our hearts begin to beat faster and faster in nervous but excited anticipation. Armed with the iPhone notes we had prepared the night before and accompanied by Linda Scherzer, a seasoned lobbying veteran who always knows what to say to the congresspeople when the rest of us feel lost for words, the 18 of us enter our first office and the lobbying begins.
We begin by asking the representatives to focus their attention on Jewish journalist Evan Gershkovich and work hard to bring him home from Russia where he is being held for false accusations of spying for the United States.
We then shift to the Israel issues we are primarily here to discuss. One by one, each assigned student stands up from their spot on the representatives’ leather couches to speak. I hear each teen’s voice begin to steady as they speak, gaining confidence with every word. They address U.S.-Israel technology cooperation, the impact of American security assistance to Israel, the potential threat of Iranian nuclear warfare, and the importance of Israel’s milestone birthday with more intelligence, understanding, and emotion than seemed fit for a high school junior. By the time it is my turn to speak, my nerves have subsided thanks to everyone else’s example. It is empowering, not only to speak directly to those who have so much power in our government, but also to be a part of such an impressive, passionate group of teenagers.
We speak with Rep. Tom Kean, Rep. Mikie Sherill’s staff, Rep. Donald Payne, and the Middle East staff of Senator Bob Menendez. Most of the congresspeople assure us that they are continuing to fight for these issues and explain to us the work they are doing. However, in Donald Payne’s office, we meet opposition that we haven’t encountered before. Led by Linda, we politely inquire about his support for the McCollum Resolution, a bill that accuses Israel of human rights abuses and puts limits on America’s funding toward Israel.
While I’m not sure that our conversation leads him to completely rescind his support for the bill, it feels important to speak to a representative whose opinions differ from ours and have a civil conversation with him that hopefully is giving both parties something to think about.
While we speak, I watch each congressperson nod their head politely, occasionally scribbling down a note. But I wonder if they are really listening to what we are saying or if we are just another meeting in a long string of days that make up their busy week.
It turns out they were listening.
At the end of May, both Rep. Tom Kean and Rep. Donald Payne co-sponsored The U.S.-Israel Future of Warfare Act (H.R. 1777), which authorizes $50 million for U.S.- Israel cooperation in technology to address the future of warfare. This was one of the pieces of legislation that we were specifically lobbying for.
As I watch the comment section of Jewish Instagram feeds fill with Palestinian flag emojis, Students for Justice in Palestine demonstrations on college campuses continue to grow, and the media repeatedly calling Israel an apartheid state, it has felt increasingly scary to be a teenager who supports Israel. I have been left feeling like the false but frighteningly widespread rhetoric of Israel’s power and violence is only going to continue to grow. But after our time in D.C. I know that there are lawmakers in our nation’s capital who want to understand the real story. Israel deserves to be fought for and I am now confident that there are congresspeople and senators alike, from both sides of the aisle, who are willing to fight for its safety and prosperity as hard as we are.
Eliana Rosen is finishing her junior year at West Essex High School.
We are currently accepting applications for next year’s Teen Israel Leadership Council, To learn more, click here.