Being a Conservative Jew on campus
Grassroots movement invigorates egalitarian Jewish college life
Historically, the Conservative movement has prided itself on its programs for young people.
For 65 years, starting in 1951, United Synagogue Youth brought high school students into shuls for social programming, brought them together from around the region and kept them overnight on Shabbatonim, packed them into buses to tour the country on USY on Wheels, and brought them to Israel on Pilgrimage. The Ramah system, a flourishing network of mainly overnight and some day camps across the country, with a few outposts around the world, gave children and teenagers an intensive, immersive, deeply lived Jewish experience. Nativ, an early gap-year program, took recent high-school graduates to Israel and kept them immersed in Conservative Judaism.
And then, often it would all end in college, when Conservative students would flounder as they tried to establish their Jewish lives as young adults. Some would give it up, some would find their Jewish lives in Hillel, and some, deciding that a strong Jewish life and a Shabbat community was more important than their otherwise-deeply-felt need for an egalitarian worldview, joined the Orthodox world or flirted with Chabad.
For about 20 years, Koach, the Conservative movement’s eternally underfunded but always hopeful college organization, established itself as a presence on some college campuses. Its annual kallah, which drew students from around North America for a weekend of davening, text study, friendship, and, when everything worked as it was meant to, joy, became a vitally important part in Conservative Jewish students’ lives. In fact, in 2011, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which funded Koach, put out a strategic plan, which declared that it “recognized that a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation.”
Despite that recognition, in 2013, the United Synagogue, which was facing financial problems, cut funding for Koach, claiming that the program was “on hiatus.” It has not been revived.
There has been a core of Conservative students on campus who have not been willing to let their movement go. They have established Masorti on Campus — Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America — and for the third year are offering a kallah, set this year for June 3 to June 5 at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Masorti on Campus also plans to establish internships for college students. This semester, in a pilot program, it has one intern — Michal Karlin of Teaneck, a freshman at Rutgers.
Michal was born into the Conservative movement. Her father, Gary Karlin, a Conservative rabbi, was a member of Koach as a college student. She graduated from the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County and then from the Golda Och Academy in West Orange; she went to Ramah Nyack all the way through, first as a camper and then as a counselor. She always had assumed that she would join Koach as soon as she began her freshman year of college.
As a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, Michal remembers the anger arising from United Synagogue’s decision to defund Koach. “I was in 10th grade; I remember everyone talking about it. I remember my parents saying, ‘Oh, Michal, what are you going to do in college?’
“Masorti on Campus was started to fill that void,” she said.
As soon as she got to Rutgers, Michal became active in Hillel. Like some other Hillels, the branch at Rutgers has its own student egalitarian group, which has retained the name Koach. That’s the part of Hillel that most interested her.
Soon, Michal was asked to join Hillel’s board, and soon after that she was asked to become Masorti on Campus’s intern. Koach holds student-led services every Friday night and about every other week on Shabbat mornings; it also has social programming, offering such food-centric events as the annual fried fiesta for Chanukah and kosher fat sandwich night. (Fat sandwiches, of the unkosher variety, are a thing at Rutgers, Michal explained.)
With the budget that comes with the internship, she has been able to add five events, Michal said. They range from making a new cover for the table that holds the Torah when it is being read, to a rosh chodesh celebration and a USY/Ramah-style oneg Shabbat, and a shiur by Rabbi Joel Alter, the dean of admission at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Next year, Michal — who is majoring in costume design and technology, and who is passionate not only about Masorti on Campus but also about her school, Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, which is both small and top-notch, she says — will be co-chair of Rutgers Koach. The search to find her replacement as Masorti on Campus intern is underway.
Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a senior at Binghamton University and another lifelong Conservative Jew, Ramahnik, and Nativ alum, was one of the two co-founders of Masorti on Campus. (The other was Douglas Kandl of Cranford, who since has graduated). He’s now the organization’s interim executive director, a volunteer but time-consuming post. (It now also has one paid staff member, program coordinator Amanda Goodman.)
Masorti on Campus is trying to figure out how best to strengthen Conservative student groups on campus, working with the limited resources it has, Eric said. The funding it does have comes “mostly from private donors and from JTS and Ramah.” (The Ramah Commission, which exercises no authority but provides some services to the camps, itself is funded by JTS but is fairly autonomous.
The Conservative movement’s structure is complicated.) “United Synagogue no longer has anything to do with us,” he added.
Eric keenly feels the competition from other Jewish groups on campus — groups that he respects and values, but he feels do not adequately embody all of his values. “Part of the driving force behind Masorti on Campus is that we want to present ourselves as authentic Judaism,” just as Orthodox and Chabad groups do, he said. “We aim to create an open, pluralistic environment on campus that allows students to express themselves fully in their Judaism without making them give up their egalitarian beliefs.”
It’s important to find a Jewish community where all your values can be embodied, he said. Often, students find warm communities “if they are willing to overlook the gender separation. You would think that this is something that we’ve drilled into teenagers, but it seems that they’re willing to put it aside for friendship and connection to others. The struggle is whether they should look for like-minded people in terms of philosophy or in terms of practice.
“Our thinking is that having a Conservative minyan is fantastic, but it’s not enough just to have a minyan. It’s about having the group of people. People tend to be cliquey, so your clique should be made of people who are fine with women reading Torah and having full participation. It shouldn’t even have to be something you think about. It should be a given.
“We’re not presenting Conservative Judaism as an alternative. We are saying that it is authentic. That we are doing Judaism in the way that Judaism is meant to be done.”
The Masorti on Campus Shabbaton will be similar to an old Koach Kallah, but it will not be identical, Eric said. “The kallah was always focused on being a massive Shabbaton, with a lot of learning for the sake of learning, which is fantastic. Our Shabbatonim have been more focused on learning leadership skills, meeting people, and sharing ideas. We’ve been running it more like a conference than another version of Limmud.”
This year’s Shabbaton, which will be the third, “will be not only for college students but also for incoming college students — students coming back from gap years or straight from high school — and at the other end for graduate students and rabbinical students. We will have Jewish professionals there too.” Those professionals will include Rabbi Esther Reed of Rutgers Hillel and her husband, Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz of JTS.
“The Shabbaton’s theme is Jewish identity,” Eric said. “It’s also about figuring out our identity as Masorti on Campus.
“We want to keep going as student-run, grass-roots, not top-down. Students shape our mission and message. There will be people teaching about personal identity, Jewish identity, college identity. If you spent three, four, five years in college, you will reinvent yourself over and over again.
“We want to help. We want to be a mainstay in people’s lives, whether they identify as Conservative egalitarian Jews or not. Some people have come to our Shabbaton who are Reform, open Orthodox, modern Orthodox. To me it’s great to see the blurring of lines, because it’s about philosophy and ideology. It’s not about labels.”
To learn more about Masorti on Campus, or about the June 3-5 Shabbaton at Hofstra University, go to masorticampus.org