My Jewish Trip to Washington, D.C.
Things really can change in 35 years. That was my reaction to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which I visited I was in the city participating in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell of Temple Concord in Binghamton, N.Y., had invited me to be one of the chaperones for the synagogue’s confirmation class, and we had a free afternoon during which we could visit one of the Smithsonian museums. I hadn’t been to the Hirshhorn since college and remembered loving it then; unfortunately, it turned out to be a big disappointment this time. Fortunately, however, that was the only disappointment in an otherwise-wonderful four-day weekend.
According to the RAC's website, the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar “is designed to expose students to a variety of public policy issues, explore the Jewish values surrounding these issues and teach the skills of an effective advocate.” It certainly does that. The students had the opportunity to explore topics of interest, with each student picking the one that most touched them. Chaperones and members of the RAC staff helped the students refine their thoughts, which were then presented in a short, written speech. On the final day of the seminar, students met with the staff of their senators and Congressional representatives, to whom they presented their thoughts.
But this simple description really doesn’t do justice to the seminar, which featured 300 teenagers praying, listening to lectures, role playing and interacting with their fellow students. As a rabbi, I was thrilled to see so many engaged Jewish teens. I know some students were there only because it’s a requirement of their confirmation class, but many exhibited real enthusiasm about what they were learning. The social aspect of the weekend was also important, especially for teenagers coming from small communities. How wonderful for them to be meet and engage with so many other Jews their own age!
In addition to the Sunday museum trip, we also visited the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (where, unfortunately, the sky opened, leaving us cold and wet) and prayed Havdalah on the steps of the Jefferson monument. The most moving part of that day, though, was the tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s impossible to do justice to what’s offered in just one visit. I did an overview of the floors, noting particular things that spoke to me. However, it didn’t all come together until the end. I originally walked past the Hall of Remembrance, a quiet spot where one can light candles and meditate on what one has seen. Something made me walk back. It was only when I lit a candle – a ritual used to remember loved ones who are no longer with us – that the impact of the museum hit me: Lighting that candle acknowledged how so many of our ancestors died in horrendous and horrific circumstances.
The trip to Washington, D.C., reminded me of why I became a rabbi: seeing Jews gather for the greater good. Watching the teen participants was a joyous look at the Jewish future. The students worked very hard for very long hours. (My first reaction to the schedule was, “I’m usually in bed by then!”) Racing across the District to get to our appointments on the Monday left me huffing and puffing, nearly out of breath, but it was worth every minute.
Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor and book reviewer for The Reporter Group. Her editorials and reviews have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association and the Syracuse Press Club. She also serves as the Jewish chaplain for Broome Development Disabilities Service Office. Her work has been published in The Women's Torah Commentary and The Women's Haftarah Commentary (both by Jewish Lights Publishing). She has also had a book of poetry, I Stand By the River, published by Keshet Press of Temple Concord. A Reconstructionist rabbi whose first love is teaching, she sees her position on the paper as an opportunity to educate the public about Judaism.