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I too am America

Langston Hughes wrote: ‘I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong… I, too, am America.’ It was 1926 when he published the iconic poem. America was a different place then. The voting rights act had still not passed. The civil rights movement had not yet stirred to life. Racial inequality abounded. It was hard to be a minority of any kind.

For all of the change that society has experienced in the century since Hughes’ writing, the America of 2024 remains a place of significant injustice and inequality. Systemic prejudice exists still in our justice system, our prisons, in access to healthcare and education.

It is against this backdrop that I ventured to Washington, D.C. this past weekend with Debroah Rosen, Dir. Of Education, Lee Slobotkin, Dir. Of Youth Engagement, and our remarkable Confirmation class. Fifteen bright, intrepid KI teens took part in four full days devoted to learning, touring and ultimately advocating on Capitol Hill around issues that speak the loudest to them. We immersed ourselves in conversation, text study, prayer and connected with the hundreds of teens from across the country that were there with us.

I wanted to share with you some of the words that our young people delivered in our representatives’ offices on Monday:

Drew Shenkman, Anya Geynisman and Daniel Venit had this to say about gun violence prevention: ‘As Jewish people, we have an obligation to create a safe space for those around us. The Mishnah, the first major collection of Jewish oral law, says, ‘He who takes one life, it is as though he has destroyed the entire universe, and he who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the entire universe.’ The clear message here is that our lives matter and are of the highest level of importance. Therefore, as Jews it is our obligation to strongly support a ban on assault weapons, weapons that have the capability of mass casualty and destroying the life we as Jews hold sacred… Today we are here to advocate for the reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban.’

Hayden O’Donnell, Logan Copeland and Will Goldstein had this to say about antisemitism: ‘We must come together to combat prejudice and hateful ideologies. By nurturing empathy and solidarity, we can establish a society that values and respects every individual regardless of their background… On behalf of myself, my peers and my congregation, and even neighboring congregations, we ask that you support the Pray Safe Act. In doing so, not only do you create safer spaces for Houses of Worship and their attendees, but this support simultaneously creates safer spaces for communities and surrounding neighborhoods alike… Support of this act can help pursue the march towards improved training and financial resources for all Houses of Worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques.’

Amelia Goode, Raffi Van Wie, Freedy Kelman and Avi Gershman said the following about Israel: ‘We need to stand together with Israel, our ally. The Reform Jewish Movement believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to end in a way that provides peace and security for Israel and her neighbors… I urge you to continue to support foreign aid to Israel as a demonstration of American support for Israel’s security. I also implore you to continue to support humanitarian support to the Palestinians… Last but not least I urge you to support active and sustained U.S. involvement in a viable two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians.’

Aria Levy, Anjali Holloman, Naomi Kaufman, Eliyah Eiseman and Olivia Moriconi had this to say about the need to protect reproductive rights: ‘When Roe v Wade was overturned after 50 years women suddenly didn’t have guaranteed access due to factors such as income, insurance and geography. America is a country of liberty and freedom yet there are now so many limitations regarding reproductive rights. It is a fact that a third of the total US population of women of reproductive age are living in states where abortion is either unavailable or severely restricted. Reproductive rights are crucial for Americans as they ensure individual autonomy, access to healthcare and the ability to make personal choices about family planning, contributing to overall well-being and gender equality… Your choice to cosponsor the Women’s Health Protection Act in the 118th Congress, which establishes a statutory right for health providers to provide and their patients to receive abortion care free from medically unnecessary restrictions.

These teenagers fill me with hope. They are smart, kind and deeply invested in building a more peaceful tomorrow. They’re going to lead us in building a better, more complete world.