As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.
Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.
In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.
From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.
The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?
When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].
The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.
Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.
Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.
The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.
The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.
Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.
Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to [email protected].