How the Religious Action Center Changed My Life
by Stephanie C. Fields
It was January of my sophomore year of college and the thought passed through my mind: What am I going to do this summer? Going back to camp just did not seem like a realistic choice for me; my only options seemed to be a real internship or job. Then, as if it were completely besheret, a postcard came in the mail advertising the Religious Action Center’s Machon Kaplan experience! Hmm, I thought…
After reading about the Machon Kaplan program I realized it was (and still is) so desirable because participants are matched with an internship in Washington, D.C., and also have the option to obtain six college credits for the summer. What a win-win situation. Great program, live in a dorm with the best people, and get college credit. Does life get better than this? As participants in the program, my peers and I were placed in internships at the RAC and with other non-profit organizations in the area. My placement was with Hadassah’s Washington Action Office.
It is difficult to pick a moment during that summer which had the greatest impact on me. Was it the opportunity to hear then-President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi speak side by side on the South Lawn of the White House? Or was it hearing then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff speak about our border issues with Mexico? Or was it the unending, fascinating, influential leaders that we heard during our classes at the RAC? There were just too many choices.
As the summer progressed, I recognized a change in myself, in the way I saw myself both as a human being and as an American Jew. Since having become a bat mitzvah and a confirmand, I knew I had responsibilities as a Jewish adult, but I was not able to translate these responsibilities into action until the Machon Kaplan program. Yes, I need to preserve our precious heritage by fasting on Yom Kippur, etc., but I also need to advocate on Israel’s behalf and make sure I vote in every election.
We also built lifelong friendships similar to those created in Jewish summer camps and similar to ones I have built in other URJ experiences. Does the networking never end? Great bonding moments included the time walking from the dorms to the RAC building and the nighttime trips to the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. Where else can you do that? Machon Kaplan was my “next step” in the transition from childhood to adulthood, from summer camp to the working world. While the courses we took at the RAC enhanced our knowledge of Judaism and politics(as every Jewish program includes a learning component), the nights and Shabbatot spent in the dorms helped to create our young professional kehilah (community).
Living and interning in Washington, D.C. was a summer I will never forget because of the effect it had on my life. The semester after Machon Kaplan, I took a course in American Government, and it made so much sense. I now had a first-hand working knowledge of creating legislation, and I know how a bill formed a law because I had experienced it. Even if my passion for politics did not lead to my career choice, it helped me focus on what I really love: Jewish education and the importance of being a knowledgeable and active participant in our political system.
My Jewish summer experience in Machon Kaplan kept me connected to the Reform Movement during a time when I was just beginning to truly enter the work force. I love the fact that my fellow participants are working in many areas outside of politics. We have a crucial understanding of our unique opportunity as Jews in the United States. In my current position of Education Coordinator working at The Temple in Atlanta, GA, I’ll never forget my time in Machon Kaplan and how it enhanced my ability to lead and engage the American Jewish experience of our community.
Stephanie C. Fields is the Education Coordinator at The Temple in Atlanta, GA.