Raising My Voice

In January of 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a L'taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, D.C. with my religious school class. The seminar, hosted by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism ( RAC), brings Jewish teens together from all over the United States to learn about how to better amplify our voices through advocacy work and present our views in a Jewish context by studying and citing traditional Jewish texts.

The experience was incredibly positive: I was in a room full of young Jewish liberals of diverse backgrounds, taking workshops on topics such as campaign finance reform and the history of abortion in the Talmud. What could be better!?

My favorite part of the seminar was co-writing a speech on reproductive rights and delivering it to my state’s representatives on behalf of the RAC. The specific purpose of my speech was to urge my reps to vote against a bill that would reverse some of the rights provided by Roe v. Wade. I referenced Jewish texts and values in my reasoning, as well as drew upon my own personal experiences and concerns regarding reproductive rights.

Writing this speech helped me realize just how relevant Jewish values are in my day to day life. Before L’taken, I believed that my Judaism and my liberal values were mostly separate; yet it turns out my opinions were in concurrence with Jewish scholars from the 1400s.

The day after writing the speech, I sat in Senator Ted Cruz’s office alongside my speech-writing partners, and together we addressed Kathleen Hunker, a member of Ted Cruz’s staff, and an expert on political law. Ms. Hunker was very considerate towards us. She listened attentively and took notes while we spoke. After our speech, she told us that she respected our message, and appreciated our efforts. She said that while Senator Cruz is supportive of women and women’s rights, he’s staunchly pro-life, so there was only a very small chance that our arguments would change his mind. This was the answer I expected, but I still felt disappointed that my words probably weren’t going to have much impact.

All of a sudden, my best friend and longtime classmate spoke up: “So if he supports women, is he going to give us affordable birth control?” I had never loved my friend more than I did at that moment. Her interjection reminded me that this wasn’t over yet. There was no reason we couldn’t ask some tough questions.

Ms. Hunker replied that making contraception more accessible is an issue addressed by the states; passing a law at the federal level would be a violation of state’s rights. “What about better sex ed?” I asked, “Creating a comprehensive sex education curriculum instead of just ‘abstinence only’?” Once again, she said it’s a state’s rights issue. Before I could ask what exactly Senator Cruz was doing to further women’s rights, our meeting ended. I walked out of that office smiling.

That moment was a huge turning point for me. I’d never really felt that my voice was of any consequence to lawmakers or the wider world. That’s partly still true since I didn’t convince Ms. Hunker or Senator Cruz to change their minds, but the questions my friend and I raised caused a stir. We made people uncomfortable, which is an important part of being an activist. Without ruffling some feathers, what will make the world change?

A month after my L’taken experience, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting occurred. I watched the Florida town hall meeting on gun control, and I saw students my age stand up and grill their representatives on why they were so slow to act on passing reasonable gun laws. I saw them doing what I did on Capitol Hill. They were relentless and refused to back down. They were causing a ripple in the country’s consciousness, reinvigorating the conversation on gun violence. 

My L’taken experience affirmed in me that like those student activists, I can have an impact. Issues like climate change or gun violence may seem insurmountable or too polarizing for our bipartisan government to compromise and come to a solution, but it doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to our reality.

Doing nothing and staying silent in the face of injustice only serves to keep progress stagnant. Our voices have value, and we often have an obligation to use them, even if the world does not develop as quickly or in the exact way we planned. If we keep organizing, demonstrating, and talking to our representatives, we will have to be heard, and change will have to come.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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Hannah,
Thank you for persevering in your beliefs. You are an amazing young woman with so much knowledge, strength, and character at such a young age. I look forward to following your future endeavors! I believe the journey will be unbelievable! Congratulations, Hannah!

Birth control is very inexpensive in this country and very accessible. Its roughly $10/mo at Walmart. Not sure what the author believes Cruz should do to make it more available. Sure would have been nice if these liberal Jewish women had taken the time to thank Senator Cruz' aid for all the work Cruze is doing to fight anti semitism. He speaks out loudly and strongly against it.

I agree with Hannah that we must speak up at every opportunity

The first time I stood up for a social justice issue, I was in the 5th grade. I am now 76 years old and running out of the energy I used all my life to stand up for my beliefs. It is comforting to know that there are young people ready to pick up where some of us have needed to leave off. Hannah, I applaud your awareness.

How to cite this page

Downing, Hannah. "Raising My Voice." 2 May 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/raising-my-voice>.

2018-2019 Rising Voices Fellow Hannah Downing (middle) with her synagogue’s L’taken Social Justice Seminar cohort in front of the US Capitol building.

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