Trip to Washington, D.C. teaches St. Louis teens about social justice


High school students from Congregation Shaare Emeth, in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C

By Georgia Bland, Sophomore, Ladue Horton Watkins High School

In January, hundreds of Jewish teens from all across the United States traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Religious Action Center’s (RAC) L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. Twenty-five teens from Congregation Shaare Emeth attended the seminar.

Every year, the RAC hosts teens from all over for powerful weekends of informative seminars and interactive programs. These programs teach Reform Jewish teens about social justice, and how to take a position as a young member of the Jewish community on topics such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, health care, Israel and so much more.

Will Kodner, a sophomore at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and member of Shaare Emeth, shared his experience and how L’taken created opportunities for change.

He said the overall experience was “Empowering, educational and purposeful.”

On the trip, students were given the opportunity to speak to their state representatives and advocate for their own perspectives as Reform Jews. 

“You can talk to these people, and they will actually listen to you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to make a huge change, but maybe a small one,” Kodner said. “For me, the fact that you’re going out there, and have the ability to talk to people in power about issues that really matter, is for sure the best thing I got out of my trip.”

L’taken hosts a candle light havdalah service in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Teens from St. Louis spoke to state representatives about the Reform Jewish stance on gun violence, reproductive rights and climate change.

Ellie Cohn, another member of Shaare Emeth and a sophomore at Clayton High School, shared how L’Taken changed her perspective and her responsibilities as a young Jewish teen.

“Before going to D.C., I wasn’t super involved in politics and didn’t really know where to take a stance, or even how to advocate as a teen,” Cohn said.

Cohn was part of a group advocating for reproductive rights. 

“I spoke to representatives of (Missouri Congresswoman) Cori Bush and through this experience, I learned how to advocate for what I believe because I could tell they were actually listening to what I had to say and making me feel important and powerful,” Cohn said.

Along with many other teens, Cohn gained several new skills through this experience. 

“[L’Taken] absolutely gave me the skills and confidence to speak out loud and voice my opinion,” Cohn said. “But most importantly, it made me more interested in participating in the Jewish aspects of my life and inspired me to continue my Jewish education.”

The RAC hosts five weekends of the teen L’Taken program each year, with hundreds of teen students and rabbis. Throughout the weekend, groups participate in a variety of diverse activities such as elective social justice seminars, mock protest scenarios and writing speeches to lobby for their state representatives. Teens also attend Shabbat Services and even get to explore D.C. One of the biggest goals of the program is to spark an interest in each student to become more involved and to teach them how to take a stance as a Reform Jew.

Rabbi Rachel Bearman of Shaare Emeth has had the opportunity to go to L’Taken in D.C. seven times and has seen the program evolve since 2014.

“Every year I see students transformed by the trip; I see the groups come together every year in a different way,” Bearman said. “It allows them to really make their Judaism real and a part of their lives that we just don’t have the opportunity to do every day. 

“The goals of the weekend are to connect our teens to the Reform Movement, to show them how the Reformed Jewish values that we’re studying in confirmation class actually apply to the real world and to empower our teens to advocate for the values that they believe in,” Bearman added.

Throughout the weekend, students are able to foster connections and meet Jewish teens just like them from across the country. 

“Overall, I think it’s really special to be able to connect with people from all over the country and experience this kind of Reformed Jewish moment together,” Bearman said.