State Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (Dist. 37) were guests recently of The Frisch School in Paramus, where they led a session of the school’s chapter of Junior Statesmen of America. The group welcomes different speakers from political life each month, said faculty advisor Pete Tamburro, a history teacher at Frisch.
The national student-run organization is designed to give high school students the opportunity to develop awareness of the political process and current issues by sponsoring lectures and organizing debates. The Frisch JSA chapter was launched two years ago by senior Yaron Schwartz, described by Tamburra as "a real go-getter." Schwartz, now chapter president, introduced Weinberg and Johnson.
Weinberg shared the story of how she first became involved in politics. An interest in education when her children were young motivated her to attend town council sessions and led to her engagement with the National Parent-Teacher Association, she said. According to a press release from the senator’s office, Weinberg has maintained her dedication to issues concerning women and children and also focused attention on the areas of health care and gun safety. She takes credit for legislation to protect women from early hospital discharge following the birth of a baby and a bill to fund autism research by tapping into money collected from traffic tickets.
One of the purposes of JSA, said Tamburro, is for legislators to convey to students that there is no one clear path into politics. "People are minding their own business when something happens to give them a reason to join a local planning board," he said. They learn, he added, that they can find their way into the field, based on their own interests and values.
Students also pick up important life skills through JSA, Tamburro noted, citing how to run an organization, public speaking, leadership, decision-making, working cooperatively with people, and taking initiative.
Not that the students at Frisch need much pushing, he said. "There are so many activities going on here. The students are great, and it’s really neat to have very motivated upper classmen who act as role models for younger students."
Among the topics Weinberg and Johnson covered were property tax relief, the N.J.-Israel Commission, funding for public schools, and political awareness. The legislators reminded the students to register to vote when eligible and to become personally acquainted with their representatives. Weinberg distributed a card that read, "If you want to know what’s really happening in Trenton, ask Loretta!"
In the question-and-answer period, young people grilled the lawmakers about state finances and New Jersey’s relationship with Israel. Many expressed interest in interning in Weinberg’s office.
Tamburro is consistently impressed by the students’ level of understanding of policy issues. "The public officials really get peppered. It’s almost like a press conference," he said. "Those hands go right up, and they ask really interesting questions. Those guys have to be on their toes," he laughed.