By Ben Haberman, Counselor and Social Media Specialist & Rebekah Friedman, Communication Coordinator
Guided by the value of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), each summer our Hevrah campers dedicate their time at camp to learning about social justice and how they can use their Jewish values to make a difference. The pinnacle experience for Hevrah campers is the trip to the California State Capital to lobby for a bill connected to their social action theme. Past Hevrah campers have focused on food insecurity, education reform, or racial injustice, preparing and making speeches to assembly members and state senators. Although this summer those important conversations happened virtually, the impact of Lobby Day was not diminished.
Campers in the Social Justice Yetzirah (major), spent two weeks learning about criminal justice reform along with organizing tactics and tips on how to lobby. As part of the California Religious Action Center’s (RAC-CA) 2021 campaign, they focused on California Assembly Bill 731 which, if passed, would work to seal criminal records for those with completed sentences and help them to more easily re-enter society after serving their time.
To prepare, campers met with Henry Ortiz, an organizer with All of Us or None: a grassroots organization fighting for the rights of incarcerated people, as a way to learn about the experiences of those who are incarcerated. They also met with Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller from the RAC-CA, to learn about effective communication with elected officials. On Lobby Day, the campers used all that they had learned and the entire eidah (session) Zoomed into a meeting with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and later joined a call with Assembly Member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan where the campers from the yetzirah presented their arguments in favor of SB 731.
Assembly Member Bauer-Kahan is an alum of URJ Camp Swig and participated in the Hevrah program during her time at camp. This connection to camp created an extra layer significance for the teens who lobbied. On the call, she talked with the whole session and described to them how her Jewish values influenced her decision to run for State Assembly and how she uses Jewish values every day to inform her decisions in a position of political power. She was very receptive of what the campers had to say and commended them on the work they were doing at camp.
Our teens were prepped and led by Liana Friedman. In seeing the campers embark on this journey towards Lobby Day, Liana remarks on the growth that she saw in each of the campers. A passion for justice and a connection to the bill was developed as each camper gained the skills to be effective advocates. She talks about the reactions and emotions that both she and the campers felt in lobbying for the bill, saying “they were nervous, they overcame obstacles, and they got a positive reaction from the assembly member.” All of these things together created a space that allowed them all to grow and develop connections to the bill and lobbying in general.
Zoe Seamon (she/her), one of our campers in the Social Justice Yetzirah, speaks on tangible things that she has taken away from this experience. In particular, she spoke about the experience teaching her peers in the program and her talking to an assembly member. Zoe has led programs virtually for NFTY this year, but she says leading them in person “feels real, and allows you to connect to something bigger” and that she “had heard of lobbying but had never done so before.” In the preparation for Lobby Day, Zoe thinks that the leadership she and the others in the Social Justice Yetzirah exhibited was a large part of the success of their experience in lobbying for a common goal.
Talia Brady (she/her) had no prior experience in lobbying before this summer, but thought it was really fun and impactful. She originally thought SB 731 was a fake bill when Liana first presented it to them and that it was being used as a teaching tool; however, when she was given more information and was told it was a real bill that could actually help people she thought it was really special to lobby at camp, a place that is so special to her. She also speaks of how she didn’t really understand lobbying before this summer, but through working with Liana and the other campers, she developed skills that she could use to lobby in the future whether in a Jewish space or not.
Julia Meltzer (she/her) and Maya Schwartzburg (she/her) talk about conquering the nerves that came with talking to a member of power in the California State Assembly. Maya talks about how it was extremely high stakes since it was not only her first time lobbying, but also her first summer at Camp Newman. She says that the script that she made really helped in reducing her anxiety, and noted how important is was that the assembly member created space for them to share openly. Even though the preparation timeline for Lobby Day was accelerated compared to years past, on the actual day, the positive energy from both her peers and the assembly member brought a sense of accomplishment .
Overall, Lobby Day was a special experience not only for the campers who lobbied, but for the entire session, inspiring campers, who had participated in more art-focused yetzirot during the first half of the summer, to join the Social Justice Yetzirah for the second half of the session. We are so proud of the hard work these teen leaders have put in and look forward to seeing them continue to make the world a better place both at camp and in their own communities.