By Alyssa Kress, NFTY Alumni
I sat in Time Warner Arena last week, and as videos played about Americans impacted by President Obama’s policies, as veterans were honored on stage, as the President himself spoke, I took a moment to stop, listen, and observe. It was one of the things I learned to do during my time as a NFTY North American Board member. In the midst of a thousand teens singing the Sh’ma at NFTY Convention or the high-school leaders at Kutz screaming the NFTY cheer, I learned to stop and take everything in, to fully appreciate the place I was in and the people I was surrounded by.
At the Democratic Convention last week, I took this lesson to heart. Each night, I stepped back, even if just for a second, and looked around at the passionate and dedicated delegates and guests that filled the stadium. Some were clapping, others screaming, and many were crying. Seeing the emotion that took over the city of Charlotte, I realized how blessed I was to be there and the incredible gift I had been given. I traveled to North Carolina with 11 of my peers as part of a course held every four years called Conventions, Debates, and Campaigns. The experience not only reminded me of how lucky I am to have a great education that provides me with incredible opportunities, but also the importance of building and sustaining connections and relationships.
Of course it was amazing to meet some big names like Chris Matthews and Chelsea Clinton. However, the best stories came from the delegates and volunteers who came from across the country to experience the Convention. One of the tasks as part of our class was to find and talk to these people, to ask them why they were so passionate about the President and why they took the time and resources to be in Charlotte.
One of the most poignant stories we heard came from a delegate who is the Chairman of the Democratic Committee in the county where I grew up. He spoke to us about the voter ID laws that the governments of Pennsylvania and many other states had passed, laws he felt infringed upon the fundamental American right to vote. The son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up learning that the United States was the country of opportunity. He was therefore appalled that these laws had been passed in America and expressed that they were more fitting for a totalitarian regime. He shared the story of a blind woman who had been voting for 60 years but didn’t have a state ID and had no way of acquiring one. His committee helped arrange for the woman to go to a licensing center to get an ID so she could vote. It was stories like this that inspired and engaged us throughout the week.
Learning about how others became so involved in politics led me to reflect on how I formed my political identity and how certain issues have become so important to me. I still remember going with my mom into the polling booth when I was a child and how excited I was to press the button to cast her vote. It was the same jubilation I felt in 2010, the first time I voted. But while my parents have always been aware of and educated about politics, it wasn’t a topic that dominated our dinner-table conversations growing up.
I began to think more deeply about how my political views came to be, and it’s clear to me that my interest in politics and the reason I advocate for certain issues stems from the way in which my parents raised me and my experiences in the Reform movement. Through religious school, camp, and NFTY, I became educated about the causes that the Reform movement stood for. I was exposed to so many different types of people from all over the country and the world. I learned that there is no right or wrong when it comes to race, religion, or sexual orientation. I was taught tolerance and the important of tzedakah. I was taught to assume good will. It is these lessons that led me to be passionate about things like LGBT rights and women’s health issues. It is what brought me to believe that every American has the right to a good education and affordable health care. I found my Jewish identity through camp and NFTY, and I now realize that I also found my political identity. I found issues that I was passionate about and wanted to stand for. But beyond that, I learned how I could actually make a difference.
The Convention was a great reminder of how fortunate I am to have been raised in a family and a religion that values political activism and engagement.
Alyssa Kress is a senior Communication and Public Service major at the University of Pennsylvania and a Communications intern with the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. She is also the youth advisor at Temple Sholom in Broomall, PA. She previously served as the Membership and Communication Vice President on the NFTY North American Board and is a proud alumnus of URJ Camp Harlam, the URJ Kutz Camp, and NFTY in Israel.