The Better Together program is generously funded by a well-respected national philanthropist and brings together Jewish teens and seniors for learning, sharing, and relationship building in synagogues, day schools and senior centers. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with our congregations to bring this free programming to local communities. (Learn more about our 2017 programs.)
Teen participants are invited to write short essays about their experience in Better Together which are then entered into the Better 2 Write competition. The essay below was written by Jocelyn McCauley of Temple Emanuel of Livingston, NJ and was chosen from over 30 essays as the High School North American Better 2 Write Winner. Jocelyn not only received a scholarship to camp or Israel for her own use, but her congregation also received a generous donation to their scholarship fund to help other children attend camp or Israel programs.
It is not always easy to talk with people older than you, especially when they have different experiences than you. Personally, I find it difficult to talk with people who I do not know well or who I am not friends with, so coming to confirmation class and talking with the elderly members was a scary prospect for me. My friends in the class managed to convince me to go to the class and I went, all be it very reluctantly at first. I was not sure of why a confirmation class was needed, I had already had my bat-mitzvah and I went to temple on occasion so I did not understand why I had to confirm my beliefs and to confirm that I was Jew. However, as I went on with class and started talking to the elder members of our temple I realized that there was a lot about Judaism that I was not as committed to as I had believed I was previously. Talking with the elders at our temple made me realize that there was a lot I took for granted, religion being one of them. Maybe this class was more important to figuring out who I was than I had realized before.
One of the elders at my temple, Tony, told me that when he was in college he was an outcast, but not by choice. He was a Jew, going to a prestigious college in London during the early 1940s, and he, unfortunately, was one of the few Jews who went to his school. At college, Tony was constantly verbally attacked by his peers, and on occasion he was even subject to physical violence. His peers did not understand his religion, and while they were not under the control of the Nazis, there was a high amount of anti-Semitism present in England. Most of the anti-Semitism was due to the belief that the Jews were the reason for the bombings happening in England and the reason why their family and friends were being drafted into the military. Tony did not harbor any hatred towards those who hurt him, be it physically or verbally, and instead allowed for it to help him grow his character and to grow as a person. He said that while it was horrible that some of his peers could not feel any empathy towards him or his people, it was his religion that helped him through that time.
Judaism has a key set of morals, ethics, and values that are held in high esteem. We Jews use those morals and ethics on a daily basis, our values showing through in our personalities and the way in which we talk. Tony told me that these characteristics, the fundamental values of our Judaism is what kept him going. For him, it was our sense of self-preservation, compassion, diligence, empathy, mitzvot, and faith that helped him. I knew of many of the Jewish characteristics that were key to our people, but Tony brought a new light to it. He was religious, but not in the way that most people think of when they hear the word religious. Tony, while he did not go to temple every Shabbat, kept tight to his morals and his values that his Judaism gave him. To him, religion was a set of traditions and ways that gave you a base for your personality, it acted like a moral compass.
In some ways I think that that is what I did not have. I had viewed religion as some set of rules that people thousands of years ago had made, rules that were not even remotely relevant anymore. However, the more that I thought about it, the more I realized how drastically wrong I was. Religion was not just an old, silly set of rules and prayers in a language that I did not quite understand, but rather it was something that was there to help guide you, to help you through your life. While I am not going to suddenly start going to Shabbat services more than I already do, I know that I will be a better Jew. I will do those random acts of kindness without expecting anything in return, I will be strong, I will fight for my beliefs and I will feel empathetic towards those in a different situation than myself. There is no doubt in my mind that I will never be the “perfect” Jew, but from now on, I will be a better Jew, and I will strive to show the other people that Jews are here to stay; that we are not just something that can be pushed around. I will show that we are the kindest and most empathetic, yet at the same time the strongest and most diligent people in our world.
Over the past 100 years, our anxieties about the duties and accountability of the House of Lords have triggered numerous inquiries, parliamentary votes and one royal commission but relatively little change. In the past few days, entangled in the machinations of coalition and party politics, the issue of Lords reform appears to have prompted a bitter battle. There are suggestions, conveyed via anonymous briefings, that a widespread Tory rebellion is looming and a fissure is opening that could yet develop into a dramatic split within the coalition. But what does all this fuss and furore mean for us, the electorate, and the health of our democracy?
Tomorrow, the joint committee on House of Lords reform publishes its recommendations. If leaks are accurate, they propose that the Lords is made up of 300 senators, 80% of whom are elected and 20% appointed "crossbenchers". The number of bishops will be reduced to 12. A senator will sit for 15 years, elections held every five years, rotating a third of the Lords. The committee will also recommend a referendum to approve the reforms. The proposals will be outlined in the Queen's Speech on 9 May. They will face a turbulent passage through Parliament during which, arguably, the core arguments for and against constitutional change will be subsumed by horse-trading and political hoop-la designed as much to provide life support for the coalition as they are to improve our body politic.
The House of Lords consists of more than 800 peers, including 92 hereditary peers, the Lords Temporal and 26 bishops, the Lords Spiritual. Those in favour of retaining the status quo argue that the appointed peers have diverse skills and rich expertise. Peers are drawn from a far wider range of professions than the Commons, which is increasingly populated by people drawn from business and public relations, and augmented by former political advisers. Supporters say it is this, the Lords' wealth of ability, that is its strength. Lord Norton of Louth believes the Lords has "experience and expertise which may not yet be achievable through the medium of election". It is the case that there are pools of specialist knowledge in the Lords – particularly in science, law, medicine and international relations – that are substantially deeper than those found in the House of Commons.
The role of the Lords is to revise, scrutinise and, at times, provide a pause to encourage the Commons to think again. On occasion, the upper chamber has proved remarkably effective, particularly in defence of welfare rights recently and civil liberties under Labour. The academic Michael Parsons points out the paradox of "the undemocratic Lords appearing better placed or more inclined to defend long-standing democratic principles than the elected other place". A recent study by Dr Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit at University College London tracked hundreds of government defeats by the Lords – around 40% of which resulted in the government making substantial changes such as blocking the former government's attempt to limit trial by jury. These are substantial victories.
A further argument against change is the issue of timing and priorities. Mr Cameron has apparently referred to Lords reform as "a fourth- or fifth-term issue". In today's Observer,Nadhim Zahawi, one of Cameron's rebel MPs, explains his reasons for opposing change. These include recent polling evidence that conveys a profound lack of public interest in the matter of Lords reform and the additional complexity of how it might be affected by the outcome of a referendum on Scottish independence.
It becomes easier to see why the late Robin Cook commented that Lords reform was like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, "as it never arrives and some are rather doubtful whether it even exists". However, reform now has the added lever that it is viewed by Nick Clegg as his legacy: payback for the indignities suffered as a junior member of the coalition. He and supporters of a 100% elected upper chamber argue that there is never a "right" time. But what gives urgency, as Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary, argues, is "how power is exercised in modern Britain".
The anachronism of an appointed chamber becomes even more stark as the public is offered an opportunity to exercise its vote for the election of police chiefs and mayors. David Cameron has professed great faith in handing increased power to people. He has set himself against centralised power. In a speech last year on the big society, he said: "It is a new approach in government to say, 'Instead of thinking we in Whitehall have got all the answers, what are the things we can do to help you to do more to build a stronger society?'"
But it is difficult to find a more extreme example of the appropriation of power by the centre than the way the House of Lord is appointed – by a system of patronage that is totally unaccountable. MPs are edged out of safe seats to make way for new blood and given a berth in the Lords as compensation; or party donors are gifted a seat in return for their largesse. And then there are the hereditary peers.
In House Full, published last year, Dr Russell and colleagues revealed that concern about Mr Cameron's "almost wholly unregulated appointments" has become "critical". In less than a year, he appointed 117 peers, a third of Tony Blair's total in 11 years in power. When it comes to the House of Lords, Cameron would seem to think that Whitehall does indeed have all the answers. Swollen patronage makes proportionality among the parties difficult and renders the House of Lords "completely unable to do its job". Opponents of the status quo add that while sagacity is evident in some peers, in others prejudice, bigotry and docility to whichever party granted them a peerage is abundant.
A partially or fully elected upper chamber would not be without major challenges. The primacy of the Commons will have to be ensured and, critically, the question of how Britain can keep the degree of independence, experience and diversity that is unique to the Lords.
But the strongest case for reform is to remove the democratic deficit that is baked into our society by the current system. The House of Lords is a closed political world in an increasingly open society in which citizen democracy and grassroots activism flourish, not least through social media. There is a danger that it will start to feel increasingly archaic in a world in which – as at the last European elections – the three main parties attracted around only half the votes cast. If Cameron is true to his radicalising roots about releasing power from the centre and to the people, then he has to support reform of the House of Lords.