Despite growing up in a Jewish household, it was not until high school that my Judaism really shaped my life’s path. In tenth grade, after continuing my Jewish education past my bar mitzvah, my local synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom, pushed me to go on the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar trip to Washington, D.C.
The trip sounded great. I would learn about Jewish values, lobby congress members, and (most importantly to me at the time) hang out with friends while missing school.
What I did not realize was that the trip would forever shift the direction that my life was heading.
After learning about various Jewish stances on a broad array of topics, I decided to lobby my congressman, Rep. Scott Garrett, on gun violence prevention, knowing that his beliefs differed strongly from my own and those of the Reform Movement. Needless to say, there was quite a lively debate in his office that day. While our lobbying efforts failed, my resolve was only strengthened.
The trip had made me determined to become more of an activist.
On the bus ride home that day, I applied for Congressman Garrett’s model House of Representatives. I was admitted into the program, advocated for my beliefs, and won a public speaking award from the Congressman himself. All the while, I was growing more active in Temple Avodat Shalom’s youth group. I participated in feeding the hungry, went on a "midnight run" trip to deliver food and clothes to the homeless in New York City, and attended my second L’Taken Seminar.
At the end of the year, I was elected as my temple’s youth group president. As the president, I gave a sermon in front of the entire congregation on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, ran various social and fundraising events, created and led an interfaith event with a local church and mosque, and oversaw another "midnight run" trip into the city.
When my term as youth group president ended, I was not ready to stop my social action and community building efforts, so I decided to run for the local board of education. I had petitions signed and notarized, and soon enough, I was on the ballot in River Edge. After reaching out to individual students, listening to former teachers, and speaking with many town citizens, I began to strengthen my name recognition in town.
On election day, I received over 1,200 votes, winning a seat on my town’s board of education. Serving on the board to this day, I have dealt with contract negotiations, interlocal agreements, tax levies, facility maintenance, and, of course, educational improvement all with the aim of giving back to my community. It was my experience participating in L’Taken that inspired me through my Judaism to want to give back to my community, and that is one of the driving forces behind why I continue to remain active.
Caleb Herbst is a sophomore at Ramapo College. Originally from River Edge, N.J., he and his family are members of Temple Avodat Shalom. Caleb is part of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Machon Kaplan Summer 2018 cohort.
Registration for the 2018-2019 season of Bernard and Audre Rapoport Social Justice Seminars is now open. Visit www.rac.org/ltaken to register with your congregation or group for a weekend of inspiration that will last a lifetime!