Ryan Karben is no stranger to politics. A spirited personality, he was addressed New York delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, met with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and served on the Town of Ramapo Planning Board in Rockland Country, N.Y.
Now he’s running as a Democrat for the Rockland Country Legislature. His age? A sprightly 20 years old.
Given the recent trend of electing politicians with little or no experience, Karben’s youthfulness could hardly come at a more opportune time. As a campaign flier proclaims: “He’s young, he’s tough and nobody owns him.”
But Karben, a Rockland County native and a junior at New York City’s Yeshiva University, views his campaign as more than an attempt to hitch a ride on the political outsider bandwagon.
For him, it’s a generational crusade.
“Many people in my generation have been referred to as `slackers,’ What I’m saying with this campaign is that it’s our turn. The voice of the next generation needs to be heard,” he said.
Karben is also quick to dismiss concerns that his age is simply a novelty act which will help him in capturing votes. County legislators must be at least 18.
“My youth has brought a new and unique perspective to the planning board and I feel it can do the same for the county Legislature. And I think people in this community are enthused by that,” he said.
The fact that he is still in college may actually be a blessing.
While most individuals in college have the opportunity to develop their minds and contemplate complex philosophical questions, Karben also confronts them on a practical, everyday basis.
He cited the example of reading Henry David Thoreau, who writes about the role of right vs. the law. “I get to deal with that question firsthand. It is incredibly invigorating, not to mention invaluable to me as a public servant,” Karben said.
Karben’s career accomplishments also include his involvement in the Rockland County Young Democrats, where he serves as president.
Since he was 18, he has been a member of the Town of Ramapo Planning Board, helping to resolve issues ranging from safe day care to Jewish concerns. He has been directly involved in making funding decisions for synagogues and schools.
In September, the Rockland Journal-News called him a “sharp, young mind” for his proposal of a local law to regulate sex shops. The law bore a striking resemblance to similar legislation later proposed by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the newspaper said.
Articulate on a variety of topics, Karben waxes philosophical about an individual’s struggle for self-definition one minute then shifts gears and speaks in a practical manner of “the need to embrace a younger, more aggressive Jewish leadership.”
He also talks of what he perceives to be a key problem plaguing America today. “We need to acquire a renewed sense of spirit,” he said. “We have forgotten how to dream, and we have to learn how to do it again.”
Karben stresses his populist roots. “I was not born into a prominent or wealthy family. I just have a passion for public service.”
He also labels himself a “raging moderate,” a concept that was driven home for him by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote extensively about the “golden mean.”
Religion has shaped him in other ways.
“In Judaism, the priority is not the self,” he said. “Instead, the community plays a central role.”
Karben claims that the emphasis on community is the appeal of public service and that this belief will make him an effective politician.
In addition, he points to the advantages of having restrictions in a politician’s life, especially against the backdrop of those politicians who have overly extravagant lifestyles.
“Orthodox Judaism teaches you limits. You can’t eat at every reception. You can’t work seven days a week; time must be reserved for the family. These limits are very important in public life. So many politicians ignore limits,” he said.
And his role as a Jewish politician?
“A Jew in public life is, in a certain sense, an ambassador for the community,” Karben said. “People who come from that community often understand it better and can serve it more effectively.”
Although he denounces politicians who are “Johnny one-note on Jewish issues,” he also says that as a Jew, he has “a special obligation to stand up for the Jewish community.”
But Karben is not all political animal. Whether it’s relaxing in front of an old Mel Brooks movie at home or spending time with his high school sweetheart, Karben often reveals a human, tender side.
“When I spent weekends volunteering in old-age homes in high school, for example, it was a incredibly enriching experience,” he said. “It taught me that not everything is a political opportunity, to be exploited for political purposes. It’s about connecting with people and benefiting from their wealth of experience.”
If Karben plays his cards right, the greatest wealth of experience may one day be his own.