Students from Wisconsin Hillel visit Washington, D.C.
By Hannah Cutts
Last week I was lucky enough to glimpse what it means to be a leader. Along with 10 other outstanding students extensively involved at the University of Wisconsin Hillel, I saw the sights of our nation’s capital city, met with many of the directors and presidents of organizations that make campus Judaism what it is today and lobbied our senators and Congressional representatives about Israel and other issues important to Jewish Americans.
UW Hillel selected students to participate in this second annual Leadership Mission from many different realms of the Jewish student community. There were several members of the Madison Israel Public Affairs Committee (MadPAC), two key members of the Jewish Cultural Collective’s executive staff, a student representative on the Hillel Board of Directors, members of the Hillel Save Darfur Initiative and participants in the Wisconsin Environmental Jewish Initiative.
And of course, there was Diklah Cohen, Madison’s Israeli shlichah. From restaurant advice, to directions on the Metro, to securing our impossible flight out of snowstorm ridden D.C., Diklah was our shining example of what it means to lead effectively. Thanks to her, this trip was possible and more importantly, meaningful.
Arriving at the Reagan International Airport on Sunday afternoon, we were a tired, rumpled and extremely enthusiastic group, ready for action, and overly excited about riding the Metro. After an excellent meal of Indian food, we set out to get a real feel of Washington D.C., posing for pictures in front of the White House and examining some of the famous monuments. We went to sleep inspired, ready to meet great leaders, change the world and discover more tasty restaurants!
Monday started early with a series of interesting meetings with several professional leaders at Hillel’s Schusterman International Center.
With Ilan Wagner, director of the Shlichut program, we discussed the dangerous decline of support for Israel among Jewish college student, and brainstormed reasons why this difficult phenomenon is taking place. The new Hillel president, Wayne Firestone, was interested in discussing the main influences in our Jewish and non-Jewish lives. I can truthfully tell you that a majority of us told him, with no sarcasm, that our greatest influences were our parents (take a moment to be proud, Mom and Dad). We also spoke about the importance of leadership and goal setting. Next, with the director of the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, Michelle Lackie, we deliberated upon the issues we feel most passionate about and how to effectively construct events that will have impact on our community. Finally, with the help of the Israel on Campus Coalition executive director, David Harris, we discussed what it means to be critical of Israel without being anti-Israel and how important it is to note the difference.
After a quick break for some awful Chinese food in Chinatown, we headed for the Israeli Embassy. We met and listen to Professor Chaim Weisman, who specializes in Israeli issues, and heard about internship opportunities that the Embassy offers.
Lastly, we made our way to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee building where they gave us tips on how to lobby. Because AIPAC is extremely influential and successful when it comes to lobbying for Israel, this meeting was a great way to end the day, giving us the incentive to prepare for our own lobbying experience.
When Tuesday morning arrived, snowy and chilly, we were a practiced, professional and snappily-dressed crew of college students. Speeches in hand, we marched down to the Congressional office buildings, ready to show our representatives how the Jewish community at UW Madison feels about Israel, Iran, the genocide in Darfur and the environment.
It was a wonderful experience. We were treated like adults and we rose magnificently to the occasion. We each spoke and shook hands with Senator Russ Feingold. We acclimated to the busy, bustling atmosphere of Capitol Hill and we made a difference by speaking our minds and taking a stand on what is important to us. We began our trip as factions of different interest groups. After three days of meetings, metros and meals, we emerged as a solid group, exposed to crucial Jewish leaders and wise in the ways of Washington D.C. and lobbyist lingo.
Finally, after waiting in the airport for four hours, fighting with stubborn travel agents and running from airline to airline, searching for a virtually non-existent flight that would leave the snowed-in D.C. area and get 12 people to Madison by Tuesday night, an exhausted, but triumphant Diklah presented each of us with our plane tickets. “Never stop fighting for what you want,” she told us.
As new and improved leaders in the Jewish community, I can promise that we won’t.
Hannah Cutts is a freshman at the University of Wisonsin-Madison.