Capitol experience helps teens implement Jewish values

Rabbi Sid Schwartz isn't interested in raising a generation of merely good Jews. He wants them to be good Americans too.

At first glance Schwartz's goal might seem to conflict with that of rabbis, Jewish educators and community leaders fretting over an assimilated American Jewry.

But Schwartz, director of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, believes that American Jews have a "twin civic responsibility," as Jews and as Americans.

"Teens are more cynical than their parents about government, but they need to be responsible and contributing members of American and Jewish society," he said.

Jewish values can contribute to the American political process, Schwartz said, with notions of tikkun olam (saving the world) by rallying around social issues as they have in the past.

To ensure a new generation of activist Jews, the institute in the nation's capital recently launched its Jewish Civics Initiative, including a curriculum titled Jewish Civics — a tikkun olam-world repair manual.

The program for 11th- and 12th-graders teaches 38 Jewish values and how they complement the American federal process. In addition, seniors spend four days in Washington, D.C., learning first-hand how government works and visiting the Holocaust Museum. Upon their return home, students participate in unpaid internships for local Jewish agencies.

In its pilot stage, the initiative serves as an adjunct to the Washington Institute's current programming for teens, like Panim el Panim (literally, "face to face") — a three-day program where participants meet with policymakers on Capitol Hill and attend lobbying sessions.

More than 2,700 high school students have participated in the 7-year-old Panim el Panim. The initiative will lend teens a better foundation for the Washington experience and provide them with the opportunity to do hands-on work afterward, Schwartz said.

Six U.S. cities, including San Francisco, are trying out the civics initiative. Schwartz recently visited here to train prospective teachers and gather support for the initiative, a partnership between the Washington Institute, the Jewish Education Service of North America, and local Jewish education agencies and congregations.

To date, 45 students are signed up for the classes which begin in January and will meet in San Francisco at Congregations Emanu-El, Sherith Israel and Beth Sholom.

According to Yael Lazar Paely, director of teen programming for the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, many teens have voiced interest because students don't view the program as a continuation of Hebrew school. On the contrary, "it appears to be a cool thing to do," she said.

"Teens are the best marketers to other teens," Paely said.

Also, many youths returning from confirmation trips to Israel are looking for a way to connect to the Jewish community at home. Many are excited about the opportunity to combine Jewish texts and social action, she said.

"The material and the approach is meaningful for post-confirmation students. Teens are looking to find a way to see what their life has to do with the rest of the world. In the program, kids realize Judaism isn't a barrier to issues, but a gateway in."

The Jewish Civics Initiative is open to all 11th- and 12th-graders in the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation area — affiliated and unaffiliated.

Classes meet twice a month on Sundays from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. For information, call Yael Lazar Paely at (415) 751-6983, extension 124.

Participating congregations cover the cost of the 10 teaching sessions. Schwartz and Paely hope Jewish agencies will help support the Washington trips by contributing to a fund rather than by paying the student interns.

"This is ultimately creating community. All involved organizations will be vested partners," Paely said.

"This is just one way of engaging teens across the board to find a place for themselves in the Jewish community."