Not many 17-year-olds who love politics get to participate in this historical process.
Hailing from White Plains, New York, Joseph Block attends SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale. He started following politics at the age of eight, when the 2008 elections were all the rage. Since then he knew that he wanted to get involved.
Eventually the opportunity would come knocking, and Joseph would have a chance to serve as the first kippah-wearing page working on the floor of the Senate in a very long time.
As a Senate page appointed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Joseph would not only be thrust into the thick of the Democratic Party’s opposition to Trump’s presidency, but for the time being he’d be the “property of the US Senate.” And as is the case for all pages, being around during some of the most private conversations among senators and staffers would become a way of life for him. Quite an unusual experience to check off one’s bucket list by the age of 17…
So what is it that makes senators trust a teenager they don’t even know? Especially considering that when a person is that young, not much can be done in terms of a background check to determine how reliable a candidate he might be. Isn’t there concern that a political opponent might try to slip a friend’s kid into the position to find out information? Why are senators comfortable with this system?
“Well, it’s been done like this for close to 200 years,” Joseph points out without reservation.
“Yes,” I challenge, “but there wasn’t social media or highly advanced listening devices for most of those 200 years.”
“Absolutely,” he agrees, but then adds, “I have never heard of a case where a page has leaked information from a private conversation.”
Why and how does that work?
“Pages are selected from hundreds of people who apply,” Joseph explains. “Those who are picked are people whom the party believes will be trustworthy, respectable young adults. [Pages tend to be] really smart kids who really want to learn.
“On our first day learning to be a page, they told us to be like a fly on the wall—listen but don’t react. When a senator walks by, we wouldn’t say hello; we’d just stand there until the senator said hello first. I guess they really do have faith that no page will rat them out.
“I’m a Democratic page, so for the most part I’m around Democratic senators. I am also around Republican senators, but I don’t really hear as much stuff [from them]. There’s this belief that pages will be loyal to the senators they serve.”
“What do they look for in deciding whom to choose?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Joseph admits. “A lot of it is probably connections. My dad has known Senator Schumer for a long time. Around a year ago I heard about a program called the Senate Page Program. The Senate brings in around 30 high school juniors from around the country to work on the floor of the Senate. I thought it was an amazing opportunity, not only because I love politics but also because I’d be getting to meet kids from the most random places in America. I applied through Senator Schumer, and I was honored to be chosen as one of his representatives for the program.”
“How difficult was it to get into this program?” I wonder.
“The truth is, I don’t know exactly how many applicants there were. I’ve heard it’s very competitive. [In my case, the process] was made a bit easier because Senator Schumer is the minority leader. There are 16 pages for the majority and 14 for the minority, and the leaders determine which senators get to appoint pages. Since Senator Schumer is the leader, he gets the final say for the Democratic side.”
“What does a page actually do?
“Basically, our job is to do the critical tasks that the senators aren’t going to do themselves. For example, we set up their desks in the morning, we set up their daily briefings, and the bills and amendments that are on the docket for the day. And we set up their podiums and easels before they speak.
“We also deliver correspondence between senators, as well as between the Senate full-entry staff and different offices in the Capitol and around the complex. So when a bill or amendment is introduced, we make 12 or 13 copies and deliver them to different places around the Capitol. The same applies when a vote takes place; we make copies of the roll-call sheet and deliver them.
“You’d think this is the 21st century and you could just send an email to save time, but the Senate has a strong body of tradition, and they want to keep it the way they’ve been doing it for years.”
“The tradition of Senate pages hasn’t always been the same, though,” I observe.
“Over the last 200 years it has progressed,” Joseph acknowledges. “Until the middle of the 20th century it was mostly young children, aged eight through 11 or 12, who were orphans from the DC area just looking for a way to make some money. As the country’s labor laws have progressed, so has the Senate Page Program; it’s become more of a learning experience for high school juniors from around the country.
“The program was established in 1847 by Senator Daniel Webster, who appointed a nine-year-old as the first Senate page,” he continues. “He was an orphan from DC who had no way of supporting himself. At the time, school wasn’t mandatory, so Senator Webster assigned him to be a page so he could receive a salary. That’s how the program was born.”
“Do pages still earn a salary?”
“Yes! It’s about $26,000 a year, and it’s paid for by the taxpayers. The Senate has faith that it’s a good investment of government money—teaching young adults, getting them involved and making them active in the political world, in the hope that they’ll give back in the future.”
As it turns out, Senate pages are held in high regard.
“Senate pages are often thought of as nothing more than the lowest level of interns in the lengthy hierarchical power chart of Capitol Hill,” Joseph tells me. “But contrary to popular belief, the position of page is perhaps one of the most important and highly regarded on the Hill.
“Pages are considered officers of the Senate and are held in such high regard that in the event of an emergency, the first group to be evacuated from the Capitol would be members of Congress, followed directly by the Senate pages. Now, that may be partially because the federal government is liable for the pages, who are minors, but it also speaks to their regard for the position.
“The position of page is significantly more coveted than that of a regular intern. As someone who has held both positions, I can attest that the honor and access granted to a page is much greater than that of an intern.”
Prestigious as the position is, however, not all senators have the same view of these teens.
“Not all senators treat the pages the same way,” Joseph says. “Most treat us in the way you would expect an esteemed senator to treat the water-carrier and paper-fetcher. They acknowledge our presence and say thank you when we do something for them, but for the most part they ignore us.
“However, there are a few senators who are different. They recognize that we are only high school students and that we don’t really come to Washington to collect a salary but to learn and to have a front-row seat at our country’s lawmaking process. They feel it is incumbent upon them to talk to the pages and teach them directly.
“Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) said to me, ‘You pages are taught to be very respectful and silent, but that’s not what I want. I want to see the real you.’ That’s why Senator Booker comes and talks to the pages nearly every single day and spends a good five minutes joking around with us. He recognizes that the pages represent the future of America and that it is his obligation to meet them and try to shape them. He also likes bringing other senators over to meet us—the ones who don’t usually go out of their way to do so.
“Similarly, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) also enjoy talking to the pages and teaching them life lessons. These three very busy men go out of their way to help the pages, and it doesn’t go unappreciated.”
Still, high regard notwithstanding, kids will be kids. There are times when they will mess up. What is the worst possible mistake a page can make on the job?
“When you’re on the Senate floor, you’re always on TV. In the world we live in now, if you do something dumb it can go viral in a second. A couple of years ago some kids were playing rock, paper, scissors on the Senate floor. It was picked up by C-Span, and the program saw it and kicked them out right away.
“The program is very strict about behavior on the Senate floor. We’re here to represent the Senate and the United States government. We have to act much older than we are. Anything that’s immature is not allowed. The worst thing would be anything that would embarrass the integrity of the Senate. They don’t want any 17-year-old making a fool of them. So it’s a big responsibility to make sure everything runs smoothly.”
“What is the hardest part of the job?”
“The hours. Take, for example, the beginning of January, at the beginning of Trump’s administration—the pages were there for four consecutive days. They didn’t go back at all, they didn’t sleep; they took 15-minute naps. Whenever the Senate is in session, the pages must be on the floor, so if the Senate is working all night for days and days, there have to be pages there.”
“So if there’s a filibuster that runs throughout the night, all the pages have to be around the entire time?” I ask.
“The way it works is that they break each party’s pages into two groups. On any given night, one group will leave at six p.m. and the other group will stay until whenever the Senate ends, whether it’s at seven p.m. or three a.m. In the case of a filibuster, they generally keep the second group of pages around because having one group working for an entire night is just not going to work. You need to rotate them.”
“I’m sure there are complications that are unique to an Orthodox Jewish page,” I surmise.
“As far as being a Jewish page, Shabbos and kashrus could have been issues. It could be really challenging for a frum Jew to do it and manage to have food, keep Shabbos, and learn Torah. But everyone was very welcoming to me as a Jewish page and tried to make the best possible accommodations for me, so I felt it wasn’t much more [adjustment] than just the obvious things.
“I’m the first page to wear a kippah on the Senate floor in a long time, but no one questioned that at all. I think no one wanted to say anything that would offend me. A lot of the kids who befriended me had never even met a Jew before and were totally confused. I had to do a lot of explaining—about what a kippah is, why I left on Saturday, why I brought special food every day.
“Regarding the food situation, there is no kosher food in the Capitol cafeterias. There’s a kosher food truck in DC, and I’d order sandwiches twice a week and have them delivered to the pages’ dormitory, and I’d take them to work every day.”
“Did you encounter any Jewish-related problems as far as the dormitory is concerned?”
“Not at all. It’s an all male dorm. It was very easy to daven every morning, and Minchah and Maariv later. Everyone was totally understanding.”
“Is politics in your future?” I ask.
“I love politics. It’s definitely something I’d consider, but I don’t know if it’s something I’d really want to do.”
“What reservations do you have about getting into politics?”
“It’s a tough life. You have thousands of people screaming your name, angry at you; you can never make everyone happy. I like to make people happy. I like helping people. But if you do this, this person screams at you, and if you do that, that person screams at you. You can never win. But public service is a good thing. I do like helping people who are less fortunate than I am.
“Pages are people who are interested in politics, interested in making a difference, and they are often future politicians themselves. There are a few current senators who have been pages, including Senators Michael Bennet and Mike Lee. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was a page. Spiro Agnew, once the vice president, was a page. The list of former pages who became politicians is quite impressive.
“It’s a first step. You meet a lot of interesting people who might be able to help you one day.”
Update: Joseph was accepted to Columbia University and will attend in the fall of 2019 after a year in yeshivah in Israel.