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I grew up in a small rural town in New York. My only connection to politics was when my dad served as town councilman. My high school lacked a debate team, a model UN or any kind of club that sparked any kind of political debate. My dad is a Republican and my mom is a Democrat. I grew up with one set of grandparents watching Fox News, and the other set watching CNN. I saw and heard both sides of every political debate from the time I was able to understand politics.
Even so, politics were a rarely discussed topic around the dinner table, so when I moved to DC to attend the George Washington University and started to work at J Street, I experienced a pretty big culture shock.
As an international business and marketing double major, it came as a surprise to my family and friends that I decided to accept an internship at J Street, especially because of my limited background in politics.
My family was very supportive of my decision, despite their lack of knowledge about J Street, but some of my friends had very different responses. One of my friends went off on a thirty minute rant telling me that I would be barred from working at other organizations, and that I was jeopardizing my career because J Street’s politics were “outside of the mainstream.” Another friend took a different route — he sat me down at lunch and explained to me that J Street “wasn’t good for Israel.” I started to second guess my decision, but I knew that while their opinion differed from mine, that I was going to continue to work for J Street.
In the end, my decision to stay was one of the best choices I’ll ever make.
During my time at J Street, I was honored to help plan the National Gala. I spent most of my days contacting various contractors, helping organize attendees and going on walkthroughs of the various venues. Throughout the Assembly and Gala, I helped set up and organize the flow of people into the event. On the night of the Gala, I got to work alongside Secret Service to help “keep everything in order.”
Meeting so many amazing people, and getting to see Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry speak at an event that I helped plan was easily one of the most exciting moments of my political life.
Moreover, it solidified the importance of the work that J Street does. It’s not every day that the Vice President and the Secretary of State come to a gala. Something tells me that if the Vice President and Secretary Kerry can speak to J Street, interning there was a great career move. It’s also not every day that the Vice President tells the world that we need to make sure that Israel is protected, but that its current course of action needs to change to keep Israel safe, and to ensure its existence. That sentiment and advice is good for Israel.
I have no direct connection to the Jewish community; outside a few Bar Mitzvahs that I attended back home, I had never stepped foot in a temple and I never had the opportunity to learn anything about Israel other than when and why it was founded. I was unaware of the turmoil that was occurring there.
Within my first few weeks, I learned how important J Street’s work is just from sitting inside the office and seeing how passionate my co-workers are about a two-state solution. I realized that being pro-peace and working towards a two-state solution takes time, but it also takes support from everyone, not just those who are directly connected to Israel. People like me, who don’t have a Jewish background still have a lot to contribute to this issue. Given the stakes of this conflict, and the importance of US leadership to resolving it, Americans of all stripes need to throw our weight into supporting a two-state solution. That means that I and so many others need to do our part to help end the turmoil.
J Street has become more than my political home. While I may still have a lot to learn, I have found a work environment that is full of people who are willing to teach. Even though my time as an intern at J Street has come to an end (for now, hopefully), I will never forget the people I met, and the opportunities I was lucky enough to be given.
Erica Eckes was an Education and Programming Intern at J Street