I was a lucky one. While I had little if any substantive knowledge of the forces that drive public policy matters that any Jew would be concerned about, I did have a burning desire to somehow make a difference. I was 21, a Brooklyn College junior, who believed that he was a political maven, and compared to my contemporaries I might very well have been. The summer before, I had simply walked into the office of a major congressional campaign, offered to volunteer and was placed into the finance office to find that three days later the entire fundraising team was fired, leaving the candidate to offer me a staff position due to my sudden seniority in organizational memory.
That position, which netted me a grand total of $250 per week, led to my involvement in a subsequent City Council campaign and an internship in the Public Advocates office. However, I was eager to learn more than what being mired in outer borough campaigns could provide and was referred to a Jewish Communal Capitol Hill internship program and a placed in the offices of a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
What an opportunity, to learn, to see, to understand how policy is actually made, how lobbyists voicing their support for issues that I so badly wanted to be involved with are pursued. To be able to have programmatic structure and guidance to help me understand just what I was encountering, and to realize first-hand the art form of deliberations where politics and governance intersect.
These experiences led me to create a national conference on Black/Jewish Relations and inspired me to commit to a lifetime of public service. That is not to say that everyone who shares these experiences will do the same, yet the understanding of the systems that create policy ensure future generations of our community will advocate more effectively when the need arises.
The program that I participated in shut its doors at least 15 years ago and none has risen to take its place. Every summer I have parents and college students asking me how they can get involved and learn these skills. Unfortunately, other than my calling personal contacts for last-minute arrangements, there exists no good answer.
Too many of our next generation of Jewish youth are not equipped with basic government advocacy skills and just paint all politics as an abjectly corrupt anathema. We cannot allow for our communities to become complacent just because we currently enjoy our place in American society. When the crisis arises it is far too late to begin learning how to be effective in an otherwise unknown environment.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center in which I proudly serve as its East Coast Director is dedicated to confronting anti-Semitism both globally and in our own backyard and has been on the frontlines of this struggle for nearly 40 years. It has, however, through its Museum of Tolerance, Moriah Films, its Digital Terrorism and Hate Project and other undertakings also addressed the broader challenges of intolerance in society. Our leadership has always sought to work with the widest spectrum of NGOs at home and abroad.
The Jewish community is at a crossroads, as younger leaders begin to take their roles in communal life. That transition is generational and impacts all tiers of leadership—Jewish and non-Jewish. The Simon Wiesenthal Center keenly understands that in order to continue fighting to defend our people, and intolerance more generally, we need to help teach future generations what it takes to make a difference in these struggles.
That is why I am so excited that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is having the foresight to create a government advocacy internship program that will help empower all those looking for a path for activism necessary to forward the causes the affect our community. We also understand that much of the work combatting anti-Semitism and discrimination occurs at the local communal and government level. We hope that this unique program that concentrates on involvement in state and local government will play a significant role in helping to prepare the next generations of leaders in the American Jewish community.
By Michael D. Cohen,
Simon Wiesenthal Center/ Museum of Tolerance NY