Three hundred Jewish students made their mark on Washington this week as they swarmed the nation's capital for the 2006 Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer B'nai B'rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy. An annual event held in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum, the forum brings together students interested in social justice and public policy for three jam-packed days of lobbying, networking and training to improve their advocacy work on campus and beyond.
The program opened with a powerful film documenting a student's first meeting with the man whose life she saved after they were matched by a Hillel-Gift of Life bone-marrow collection drive, and concluded with visits to their local congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. In between, they learned how they could make a difference in the lives of others by attending workshops on community organizing, combating hunger and homeless in America, fighting the worldwide epidemic and uniting interests in Israel and social justice, among many others.
"Not only did the students have the opportunity to participate in these sessions, they played an essential role in organizing and leading them as well," said Michelle Lackie, the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel director. "Their ideas and perspectives were invaluable in putting together such a varied and meaningful program."
Participants also heard from a number of leading activists and politicians in whose steps they hope to follow in upcoming years. The distinguished guests included Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger and Karen Austrian, the co-founder of Binti Pamoja Center for teenage girls in Nairobi, Kenya, who delivered the Henry Everett Memorial Lecture. Ross Born, the co-CEO of Just Born Inc., and Corporation for National and Community Service CEO David Eisner talked about the corporate and political responsibilities to integrate tikkun olam (repairing the world) into their practices. Manar Fawakhry, the Slifka coexistence scholar at Brandeis University, put a face on the efforts to engage Jews and Arabs in dialogue as she discussed her own experience growing up in Israel and her work to build bridges in the region. The forum also allowed Hillel to honor one of its leading partners, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, for its 20th anniversary.
Hillel also partnered with the American Jewish Press Association to offer a special track for students interested in journalism. The program included trips to the Pentagon, where they met with officers in the public affairs division, and the White House, where they were briefed by Jeffrey Berkowitz, the president's liaison to the Jewish community. Students also heard from local journalists about working in war-time Washington and choosing among the varied career paths in journalism, and they also met with Rob Kutner, a writer with the Emmy Award-winning "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." In a unique session with Holocaust survivor Tania Rozmaryn and former CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb, they learned about the media's failure to adequately report the horrors of the Holocaust to the American public. The journalism track was made possible by the Darmstaedter Estate through the UJA-Federation of New York.
The students weren't the only ones in town honing their social-justice skills during the conference. A dozen Hillel professionals also made the trip to participate in the Tzedek Professional Development Series, where they learned how to help students facilitate and make the most out of the social-justice opportunities back on their campuses.