Having a conversation with Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) students Debra Glasberg and Tzvi Smith is like chatting with two political experts being interviewed on CNN. These two high school students are among the five Jewish teens chosen for the exclusive Sen. Joseph Lieberman Scholars Program.
Now in its third year, the program is a joint project of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). The goal of the Lieberman Scholars Program is to educate and cultivate future leaders of the Jewish community.
After submitting an extensive application, selected high school students are notified late in their junior year. The program lasts throughout their senior year.
Twelfth-graders Smith and Glasberg and the three other students selected are expected to monitor issues in Congress, work in government offices at the local level and participate in pertinent educational programs and seminars.
Glasberg has visited Russia and Australia to teach children about Judaism and has been participating on her school's Model United Nations team since 10th grade. At 17, she has her immediate future figured out: She will learn at a yeshiva in Israel for a year after high school and then go to college to study political science. Her goal is to become a political activist.
"I'm concerned about issues that affect the Jewish community and how we can help American Jews and world Jewry in the political process," the Beverly Hills resident said. "I think it's extremely important that Jews have a say in American politics."
Smith, who started an NCSY branch in his community of Westwood, was inspired to participate in the Lieberman Scholars Program after spending a summer working for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). The 17-year-old said he was asked to look into various policies and outline positions on both sides of issues.
"I really enjoyed thinking about and seeing where and why people choose one side of an issue over another and getting down to the bottom of it," he said.
Smith is anticipating that the program will expose him to different points of view. "I'm hoping to get perspective out of it and make my world a little better," he explained. "As a teen, I live in a pretty cloistered environment. I'm hoping the program will give me an opportunity to get in touch with Judaism in other parts of America and other points of view."
Like Glasberg, he plans to study at a yeshiva in Israel before attending college.
In late November, Glasberg and Smith attended the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly in Philadelphia. The conference provided an opportunity for Jewish community leaders from across North America and from Israel to meet and exchange ideas. The purpose of the event, which is one of three major seminars the scholars will attend this year, was to foster leadership in the Jewish community and promote Jewish awareness.
"Coming from an Orthodox perspective, I was fascinated how the whole community could come together," Glasberg said. "We all had this uniting factor in supporting Israel and learning how to bring community together to help Israel."
For Smith, the most memorable part of the conference were the sessions on outreach. "I do Jewish community outreach, and it was interesting to see differences in goals and messages between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox," he said. "I like to be reminded that the Orthodox opinions are not the only way."
"It reminded me that we're all Jews," Smith continued. "There were no conclusive answers, and I thought that was important because so many backgrounds were represented."
Josh Sussman, the IPA associate director in Washington, D.C., is one of the guiding forces behind the program. "Our office hopes to increase political activism in the community," he said. "The Orthodox community traditionally feels the political community is not for them, and there are some pockets who still feel this way."
"Anything that gets people involved is a good thing," Sussman added. "Hopefully this program is one more step in that direction."
Debbie Shrier, YULA's secular studies principal, said that while both students have vision and drive, the program will give them the skills to implement their ideas.
"Both of them have the tikkun olam [heal the world] aspect to make change," the administrator said. "Now they'll have the political tools to make change and have an impact on the community as leaders." Â