Welcome to week three of the JTI Summer Blog Series! This week we join Sam Goldstone, a rising junior at Wayland High School and a 2018-19 Metrowest Peer Leadership Fellow, as he shares highlights from the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar “that gave [him] new ways to follow [his] passion” in Washington, D.C., in March.

If you know me, you know my passion is being an activist, standing up for social justice and making a change in my community. Chances are if you know me, you also know that I’m Jewish. So when I heard that JTI was going on a trip to the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C., where I would get the incredible opportunity to lobby congress with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), you bet I was SO in. Throughout a long weekend in D.C., I became more aware of critical social issues, stood up for social justice and made some terrific friends.

The name of the program I attended, L’Taken, is the Hebrew word for “to repair”; the Jewish value of repairing the world is called tikkun olam. Going into my L’Taken trip, I had thought of myself as someone who kept up with the news and social issues. While at the RAC, I was immersed in a learning experience like no other. It was an experience that was more than just “educational,” and yet was so much more than just “fun.” My RAC experience taught me more about what I was passionate about and also helped me see new ways I could attempt to make changes in the society at large.

Every day we would get to participate in really fun workshops. A few memories from these workshops stand out above the rest. The first was an accurate simulation activity in a workshop about income inequality. Going into the activity, I had thought income inequality and living in poverty was bad, but I only had conceptually grasped the horror of it.

During the simulation, each person was given a certain salary, a biography, a family and a job. I was a single mom with four kids who had to work two jobs just so she could afford to pay for rent and food, let alone being able to afford transportation and other utility expenses. When the simulation first started, I planned on going to the grocery store after working my first job so I could get some food. When I got to the grocery store, the really healthy food was all super expensive, so I had to buy unhealthy canned food that wasn’t very nutritious, but at least it would be enough dinner for my family. When I went to check out at the store, the owner told me that he was raising the prices, so I no longer could afford all the food for my family and me to have dinner that night. I quickly went home and fed my kids before going back out to work a second job. When I went to get food stamps, they gave me a form to fill out, but it wasn’t in English, and I couldn’t fill it out so I couldn’t get the food stamps.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just an activity or a simulation; this is a reality for the 43.1 million Americans who live in poverty. The exercise helped me confront the fact that our Congress doesn’t do enough to help these poor Americans.

The other activity that helped open my eyes to the problems that plague America and specifically American politics was a lobbying simulation. Everyone was split up into two lobbying groups, one for gun rights and one for gun violence prevention. There were three senators we had to convince to vote a certain way on a piece of legislation that would mandate universal background checks for all gun sales and transfers of ownership. There was one conservative senator, one liberal senator and one senator who was in the middle of the political spectrum. We would help sway these senators’ votes by making phone calls to them, spending money on commercials, etc.

It seemed fair up until the very end, where it was revealed how much money each lobbying group spent on each senator. As the lobbying group that wanted gun violence prevention and the legislation to pass, we had spent about $200,000 on various advertisements, etc. As it turns out, for every dollar we had in our bank account to begin with, the gun rights supporters had $10. From the very start, the activity wasn’t fair. It parallels the American political system, in which the NRA puts millions and millions of dollars into the pockets of elected officials so those officials then vote against legislation aiming to expand gun violence prevention measures.

Overall, the L’Taken trip not only provided me with new ways I can follow my passion and make differences in society, but it also helped open my eyes to some of the horrors and injustices that many people face every day.

Learn more about the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, D.C., here.

Sam Goldstone is a rising junior at Wayland High School and a 2018-19 Metrowest Peer Leadership Fellow.

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