Learning how to advocate
Wiesenthal Center’s program puts students in government offices
Before Michael Cohen moved to Englewood, he spent many years in New York city and state government; starting when he was 19, he basically breathed politics. As he grew into adulthood, his knowledge of how to build the kinds of real relationships that underlie the more performative aspects of politics became a core part of how he understood the world.
Mr. Cohen is in his 40s now, and he’s the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. As he looks back at one of the formative experiences of his time in state politics, he tells a story — one of the many benefits of talking to Mr. Cohen is his wealth of stories, and his skill and joy in telling them — about the time that “a high-level Jewish organization came to us to pitch us on an issue that was important to the Jewish community,” he said. “They didn’t know how to make a specific ask.” As it turned out, the state legislature already had acted on the issue, but the organization knew neither that news, nor how to ask for what they wanted. “Even the most prestigious Jewish organizations often don’t have those skills.”
If you don’t know how to ask, you’re less likely to get what you need, Mr. Cohen said. That knowledge is based on both experience-driven intuition and an understanding of protocols, vocabulary, and psychology. That might sound grander than it feels, but the problem is real.
About eight years ago, the Wiesenthal Center began its government advocacy internship program, which places students in summer internship programs, pairs that with a weekly seminar, provides each student with a mentor, and helps them learn to navigate the maze of government.
“When we started it, we recognized that as the Jewish community, we have to interact with folks in the government if we want to have an impact. There are only so many opportunities to have those meetings, and if we don’t do it correctly, we waste those opportunities. We can’t afford to do that.
“So we realized that at Wiesenthal we have to train the next generation of Jewish leaders to make sure they have the skills to deal with the government, media, philanthropists, and others, to make the right impact for the community’s agenda. If people who are advocating for the community don’t understand the jurisdictions or the capacities or the capabilities of the official they’re talking to, they won’t know what to ask for. They won’t know what can be done in any of those spheres of influence.” Often, if an official says no, “it’s not a reflection of whether that official wants to help.” Instead, it’s about whether that official can help, once he or she understands what the request is.
“So we created a program specifically geared to teaching those skills to college students. We want to make sure that the next generation of leadership in the Jewish world is immersed in these environments and sees firsthand how decisions are made, and what capacity and jurisdiction each of these entities have.”
When you do that, Mr. Cohen said, you can set appropriate, realistic expectations. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t dream or aim high, just that you should have a good idea of whether or not you’re doing so.
“The participants are college students, starting from rising freshman into graduate school.”
Although most of the placements are in New York city or state, “the program is regional,” Mr. Cohen said. “Probably about half of the interns come from New Jersey; we’ve also had people from other states, and also from Canada. The program is being recognized for its impact, and there’s no other program like it.” All the interns are Jewish; they come from across the Jewish world.
The program has three prongs, he said. The first one is the actual internship. “For nine weeks of the summer, each participant is assigned a full-time internship in the office of a city council person or a state senator or state assembly member or a borough president.
“They’re in the office to understand things like the composition of an elected official’s staff; what people’s function is, who do they meet, how do they go out into the community to interact with, say, block associations, parents’ groups, Lions clubs. What is the community? What brings elected officials to engage with the constituency? Just seeing them, you can’t possibly understand all the competing interests. When you’re advocating on behalf of the Jewish community, you have to understand elected officials’ side of things, and you can learn it in an immersive environment.”
The program isn’t an academic endeavor. “You learn by not only seeing it firsthand but being part of it,” he said. “Local elected officials’ offices are not very large, so quality interns get serious work.”
The program’s second part is the weekly meetings. “We have workshops over dinner for the entire cohort each summer,” Mr. Cohen said. We have usually about 25 students; when we have good ones knocking at the door, we can get a little bigger.”
At those dinners, interns “hear from different experts on different issues in real time,” Mr. Cohen said. Speakers have included Selvena Brooks-Powers, a New York City Council member from Far Rockaway, and the communications director from Pitta Bishop, a “major lobbying firm” in the city. Many of those speakers are not Jewish.
Also, because “we want everybody to understand that the Jewish community is a lot larger than the one you grew up in,” no matter which community that was, “we make sure that we take in the full spectrum of the Jewish world. We all recognize that we all have to fight antisemitism and support Israel, even though our ways of doing so are different. We have to understand each other.
“The first thing we do is go around the room to make sure that they each understand each other’s perspective.” And that’s not only the Jewish perspective, but the one gained from the internship. “It will be very different working for an assembly member on the Upper West Side and in central Brooklyn,” Mr. Cohen said.
The third component, the mentorship, matches students with people with experience; sometimes, not always but sometimes, that can turn into a long-term relationship, with the intern able to draw on the mentor’s experience long after the internship program is over. Mentors have included New York State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Spodek; Hindy Poupko of UJA Federation of New York; Israeli activist Sarri Singer; Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund; Richie Taylor, the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the NYPD; and Rabbi Joseph Potasknik, the FDNY and NYPD chaplain who is also the founder and director of the New York Board of Rabbis.
The internship program also has begun an alumni program, so members of different cohorts can meet each other, and all the participants can maintain their relationship to the Wiesenthal Center.
Mr. Cohen has many stories of how the center’s interns can help shape political outcomes; here’s one of them.
“As we know, there was a tremendous uptick in hate crimes on CUNY’s campus last spring,” he said. “Eric Dinowitz is a member of the city council, and on the higher education committee and a member of the Jewish caucus. The committee held a hearing about antisemitism at City Hall; committee members typically bring a staff member or intern to hearings. I testified at the hearing; then they asked the internship program’s alumni association if they had any CUNY students or graduates who had experienced antisemitism and could testify.
“Two of the people who testified were program alumni. Four of the six council members who came to the hearing brought Wiesenthal interns, and one brought a staff member who was a Wiesenthal alumnus. Three-quarters of the staff and interns were current or past program participants. And they all know each other.
“We want these cohorts to be close to each other,” Mr. Cohen continued; to that end, the center hosts such programs as an annual barbecue.
“Some years ago, we realized that we had three students at Cornell at the same time, from three different cohorts. One had become the president of the Cornell Democratic club.
“They got together and brought Walter Mosley,” a New York City politician, “to speak. He’s an African-American former member of the State Assembly who fought against antisemitism.”
One more story.
There was a problem with antisemitism at Rutgers in 2017. “One of the professors there starting posting” hateful things, and “Justin Feldman of Englewood, who had done the program the year before, brought the world’s attention to it,” Mr. Cohen said. “He wrote op-eds in local papers, and he brought us into it, to the point where we had a Wiesenthal event at the Hillel at Rutgers, with elected officials, who said that they would not tolerate antisemitism on campus.
“It all started with Justin Feldman knowing what to do.”
The program also sensitizes interns to the outside world, and to the connections they have to that world.
“One of the things we see all the time is that interns start talking about issues that they never would have thought about before,” Mr. Cohen said. Not only the ones confronting the Jewish community — those they had thought about — but the ones that the constituents of the offices where they work face.
Another student who made a real difference is Isabelle De Brabanter, who grew up in North Caldwell, and her family belonged to Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove. “She was responsible for getting an anti-BDS resolution passed there, in Caldwell, and in West Caldwell,” Mr. Cohen said. From that beginning, 37 other towns in New Jersey passed similar resolutions.
Ms. De Brabanter was an intern in 2017. “I had a wonderful experience with the program,” she said. “I did it the summer after sophomore year at Cornell. I staffed Rebecca Seawright, an Assembly member from the Upper East Side. The center provided really interesting programs that supplemented the day-to-day of actually working in public service.”
Ms. De Brabanter majored in information science and French; now she’s a project manager working at AI at IBM. She’s also still deeply connected to the Jewish world. “I am on the board of the alumni program at the Wiesenthal Center, I do a lot of work for the Birthright Excel program, and I do extensive work with the American Jewish Committee — I just finished a fellowship there — and I volunteer with Dorot,” she said. (Birthright Excel, a Birthright Israel enterprise, is an Israel-based program for young entrepreneurial Jews who show talent in business, and Dorot is a New York-based nonprofit that provides services to older people, giving them not only meals and other tangible goods, but also filling their needs for social connection, friendship, and the feeling of community.)
What did she gain from the internship program? “I gained insight into the ins and outs of governmental work and the importance of advocacy, connection, and community,” she said. “It’s about being connected to other Jewish leaders, and about being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about using those connections to support other people.”
Shira Jacobs of Englewood, who has known Michael Cohen from the neighborhood for years, has become a strong supporter of the internship program.
For her, Holocaust memory is the most important issue the Wiesenthal Center takes on, and the internship program is a way to keep that memory alive.
“I think the program is amazing,” she said. “I think that as we get more and more distant from World War II and the Holocaust, and we are losing survivors, this is a way to keep college-age students involved in Holocaust learning and the fight against antisemitism.
“Its focus in seminars is to be aware of present-day antisemitism; about BDS and other problematic issues.”
Her son, Rafi, was an intern during the summer of 2018, and now she’s hoping that her nephew will choose to apply to it as well.
Rafael Jacobs, her son, graduated from the Frisch Academy in Paramus, did a gap year and a half in Jerusalem, graduated from Yeshiva University, and now is in law school at NYU.
He also was a Wiesenthal intern.
“I worked with Councilman Mark Levine, who now is the Manhattan borough president,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He’s a great guy, very friendly; he’s Jewish, and fluent in Hebrew. His chief of staff was Israeli.
“I was placed in a normal intern program, and I was the only Jewish kid,” he continued. “I worked on Section 8 housing, I did intake for people calling with programs. That summer was when there was a crisis with children separated from their parents at the southern border. The children were sent to our district.” (That was District 7, which includes the Manhattan neighborhoods of Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights.)
“It was a normal day to start with, and then the phone never stopped ringing. We filled a truck with supplies — diapers, toys, other things for kids. I carried supplies all day. I didn’t see any children, but I talked to people who wanted to donate and I recorded donations.
“That was very impactful for me.
“That was the government part of the summer. And then we met for dinner, usually at some office, sometimes at a fancy Madison Avenue building, and there would be an important, influential expert on something like social media or interfaith relations or fundraising. The lecture and questions were very organic.” They also were very helpful, Mr. Jacobs added.
Serena Bane of Englewood graduated from the Frisch Academy, did a gap year at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, and then went to Barnard; she’s a student there now.
“I’ve always been interested in learning about Judaism from different perspectives and angles,” she said. “I have done an anti-bullying program at the JCC when I was in middle school.” (That’s the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.) “I did a program learning about Judaism with students from Israel” through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “I did programs with different Jewish nonprofits during high school.”
She also was a Wiesenthal intern in 2020. That was the covid summer.
“At the time, I was interested in government and Jewish organizations, so it was a perfect combination,” she said. She’s majoring in psychology, focusing on industrial organizational psychology, she said. “And I’m very involved with Jewish life on campus, with Jewish life in general, and with the Wiesenthal Center.” She’s also on the board of the Wiesenthal Center’s alumni association, where she chairs the events committee.
“My year, everything was completely online,” she said. “There were 20 of us in the cohort, and each person was assigned to a different government official’s office. Every week, we’d meet as a cohort on Zoom, and Michael would bring in a different speaker.” So the program maintained its structure, even as it moved entirely online.”
Like Rafi Jacobs, Ms. Bane worked for Mark Levine. “I was doing a lot of constituent services, and I helped coordinate the community food bank,” she said. “Mark Levine had a bunch of town halls, and I helped research them. I also helped spearhead a job board, posting jobs that were available in various industries in his district.
“I liked the work.
“At that time, there was a lot going on in the world, and in the office; I would have been happy taking on even more work. That’s where the benefit of having a dual program in government and the Wiesenthal center was for me. I like being active. So while I was working for Council Member Levine, I also could help create a conference and a panel for the Wiesenthal Center.
“I really enjoyed the programs that we had. I thought that the people Michael brought for us to network with were incredible. They touched on so many aspects that impact Jewish leadership. We met someone who works fighting antisemitism on campus, who said that we could call him if we ever needed help. We heard someone talk about the role of philanthropy, and of the positive portrayal of Jewish activism in the media.
“It was interesting to hear from all these people in all these areas, about how to be an activist for the Jewish community in so many ways, as well as through government officials’ offices.
“I’m very passionate about this,” Ms. Bane concluded. “I am still very connected with the Wiesenthal Center. I still keep in touch with my colleagues in my cohort. I am very involved with Jewish leadership on my campus, making sure that Jewish causes are represented. I think that after college, I will do the same thing, although I don’t know yet what this will look like.”
And that’s part of the internship program’s goal. It wants its graduates to know how to advocate for the Jewish community, how the government works, and how advocacy and government come together. It wants its graduates to maintain the passionate connection to the Jewish community that propelled them into the program in the first place — and to have the knowledge and skill to aim that passion in the way that will provide the best results for them, for the Jewish community, and for the larger world around them.
The Wiesenthal Center’s government advocacy internship program is accepting applications until March 15. To apply, google “Wiesenthal Center internship program.” (The organization’s website, Wiesenthal.com, doesn’t have a link to the program on its homepage, so it’s easier to google, but if you don’t mind clicking lots of links, go to the homepage, then click on “About” at the top, then on “Regional Offices,” then on “New York,” and then you’ll get to a link for the program.) Or call Michael Cohen at (212) 697-1180.