S’mores, Capitol Hill, and Judaism
S’mores, Capitol Hill, and Judaism: Can you figure out what they all have in common? For me, they are some of the most important aspects of my experience as a participant in the Religious Action Center’s Machon Kaplan work/study internship program for college students. Add to that list: introducing me to some of my closest friends, showing me a career path I love (yet had no idea existed at the time), and being my first “real world” experience, just to name a few of the things Machon Kaplan did for me.
I arrived at the RAC on a hot, humid DC summer morning for the first day of my internship. I will never forget feeling so small amongst the giants I knew walked those halls before me: Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi David Saperstein, even the 19 NFTY Regional Social Action Vice Presidents, the Movement’s future, with whom we shared dinner on our first night in D.C. This was the place where the leaders and pioneers of Reform Judaism from around the world had worked, served, and congregated. This was where those men and women fought, sweat, and bled – both figuratively and literally – for much-needed change, advancement, and equality. At the RAC, I got to see and feel the Reform Movement’s history of social justice – the conference room where the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were drafted, the press room, the “pits,” or offices of the Eisendrath Legislative Assistants (who are the heart of the RAC). In all of these places, some of Reform Judaism’s brightest and most progressive minds made magic happen. I had a number of unforgettable experiences that summer. I learned from the RAC’s partners and our own leaders, drafted position papers on issues such as the Middle East Conflict and the atrocities in Darfur, helped organize meetings with members of Congress, and was even able to attend briefings and meetings on religious equality, education, labor rights, and other vital issues. I had the unforgettable experience of hearing Rabbi Michael Namath, the RAC’s Program Director, speak from the same podium as then-Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Harry Reid, and the late Senator Ted Kennedy, among others. To be in the same room with them, let alone to know someone standing next to them, was an honor I never in my wildest dreams imagined would happen that summer. While these were some of the highlights of my time at the RAC, the most transformative experience didn’t come during a press conference or in the office of a member of Congress: It happened right in the lobby of the RAC. My first intern assignment was to assist in the coordination of the RAC’s signature summer happy hour called “Meet S’more Interns,” an event for Jewish interns living and working in D.C. for the summer. Little did I know that this would be a life-changing event for me! I had worked on programs and events as a NFTYite, planned programs as a counselor at Camp Harlam, and served on committees planning philanthropy and social functions for my college fraternity, but this was the first time I got to own and execute an event for others in the real world. It felt great! It was rewarding, yet humbling, to watch 75+ Jewish interns squished into the lobby at 2027 Massachusetts Avenue enjoying the camp delicacy of a s’more. In the six years since my Machon Kaplan summer, I have made choices, taken turns, and had experiences, all of which relate to that one moment as a 20-year-old intern in our nation’s capital. “MK,” as we alumni fondly refer to it, started as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop my ambitions and the passion for social action and advocacy instilled in me by my parents and cultivated by the weekends and summers at NFTY events and summer camp. By the time I left Washington, D.C. that summer, I craved opportunities to make our world a better place by continuing to advocate on behalf of those who couldn’t advocate for themselves – but I was looking for a different way to do so. I held leadership roles in student organizations, took on additional internships, and worked jobs that allowed me to gain a real knowledge in the field of meeting and event management – a field that, prior to that summer in D.C., I had no idea even existed. The experiences I have had, the positions I have held, and the (sometimes tough) lessons I have learned are all because the RAC assigned me, of their three interns that summer, the opportunity to work on that event. Fast forward six years: I have the opportunity to continue my work within the Jewish world while doing a job I am still very passionate about as a meeting planner for the Union for Reform Judaism. I owe a lot to that summer in The District, and I’m grateful to those who made MK a reality for me and all the other alumni of this wonderful program. Wes Peskin is a meeting planner at the Union for Reform Judaism and was a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program in the summer of 2006.