I spent this weekend in DC with a fantastic group of tenth graders from our congregation. We were there as part of the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken program, which teaches teens about advocacy, Jewish values, and how to speak truth to power. In addition to various programs on the issues, we visited the MLK Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and spent time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was a full and fulfilling weekend. We learned, we prayed, we listened, and we ultimately came away with a greater sense of the power we each hold to make a difference in this rather broken world. The very word, L’Taken, means “to repair” and I certainly feel that we helped repair part of the world during our few days together.
The trip culminated with a visit to Capitol Hill, where they presented speeches to elected officials about those pressing topics they chose to address as a group. The teens put on their most professional clothes. They held in their hands the speeches they worked on so thoroughly. They walked down the long halls of the House and Senate office buildings. They knocked politely on the office doors. They entered in time for their appointments. And then it happened: Our teens gave the most eloquent and moving speeches in these offices that have withstood the test of time and turmoil.
The teens chose to address two primary issues: preventing gun violence and protecting reproductive rights. I am so proud that they chose these two, for they are both so vitally important, maybe more so than ever. As senseless violence continues to claim lives, as the proliferation of guns continues to lead to untold pain, as access to guns remains far too easy, and as America remains the only country in the world with more guns than people, it could not be clearer that we have a national problem. The teens spoke from their own personal experience, blending Jewish values into their words, challenging us to consider what it means to save lives while we have the chance. They thanked Senator Fetterman’s staff for supporting and co-sponsoring the Assault Weapons Ban, “a bill designed to ban the sale, transfer, manufacture, and import of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and other high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.”
In Congresswoman Madeleine Dean’s office, our teens spoke of the need to safeguard reproductive rights at a time when such rights are increasingly being denied. When Roe vs Wade was overturned last summer, it became exponentially harder for women to obtain an abortion. (We learned this weekend that we need to say the word, “abortion,” and not always hide behind the language of “pro-choice” or “pro-life”). Without access to abortion, more women’s lives are simply in danger. By denying access to necessary medical intervention, we not only jeopardize life, but we upend Jewish tradition. The Talmud offers numerous reminders that the mother’s life takes precedence always over that of the fetus. Tractate Sanhedrin (pages 72b and 84b) will make clear, for instance, that one who causes a miscarriage is not accused of murder as the fetus is not considered to be “a human soul.” Rashi, commenting on these texts, will teach that a fetus which puts a mother’s life at stake is akin to a “rodef,” a pursuer that in fact must be eliminated for the sake of the mother’s survival. Of course we could add here the oft-quoted line, also from the Talmud: “Whosoever saves a human life is considered to have saved the entire world” (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a).
The group spoke with Congresswoman Dean about their own lives and the world they want to grow up in, one where choice is possible and medical decisions are not imposed on them. They spoke of the sanctity of the human body and what it means to make decisions regarding one’s own body. They spoke from a place of passion and knowledge.
In addition to the impact that I hope their speeches will have on the course of our country, I am even more hopeful that the experience will have a profound impact on the teens themselves. I hope that they saw that they matter and their voices matter. I think sometimes our teens forget that these days. I hope they were reminded, as we all must be reminded sometimes, that they are sacred, that change is always possible, and that we must never give up on the prospect of a better tomorrow.