I have grown up as a Conservative Jew. I am a third generation member of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and in high school I was very active in my USY chapter and in USY’s Hagalil region, which covers all of New Jersey. Since arriving at Pace University, I began working to start a Hillel chapter there, and with the assistance of the Koach’s director, Rabbi Elyse Winick, I established a Koach presence on campus. Koach is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s college program. My grandparents and parents have instilled strong Jewish values in me, and I hope to see the Conservative movement thrive for many generations to come.
Recently, United Synagogue announced the elimination of Koach. Within hours of the announcement, students from all over North America, including me, formed the Save Koach initiative. Through the efforts of many people, we were glad to see United Synagogue’s budget revised and Koach given $100,000 with a reprieve until Dec. 31; it must raise an additional $130,000 by then.
I feel Koach is absolutely essential to the future of Conservative Judaism. While a great deal of time, money, and effort is committed consistently to pre-college programs including Solomon Schechter day schools, Ramah, and USY, this funding cannot be used to its full potential if it does not also support an organization that helps these students take the next step of their Jewish journey. Young Jews cannot make the leap from being Conservative Jewish high school students to being committed Conservative Jewish adults on their own. If we do not provide an infrastructure of involvement for Conservative college students, we run the risk of losing a whole generation of Conservative Jewish members and leaders.
Save Koach (saveKoach.org) has been hard at work devising fundraising strategies and improvements to the operating model. We plan to announce national fundraising initiatives in the coming weeks, which also are intended to establish strong connections between Koach participants and the greater Conservative community.
I believe that movement-based programs such as Koach still serve a vital purpose. Some people think that progressive Judaism may evolve best by moving beyond denominational labels. But with the support of a movement, we can be sure to maintain a strong continuity throughout a young Jewish student’s life. Independent programs might work at schools such as NYU, with a large population of leaders who are able to support one another, but schools like mine need the support of the larger movement, because our smaller size makes it harder for us to identify and develop experienced leaders. Smaller independent programs rely upon the occasional leader coming up on a campus and shining; Koach provides leaders from other Conservative programs and fills the gaps in the existing framework.
There are a variety of Jewish movements represented on the typical college campus. Each of these movements can be differentiated by how literally they take the various scriptures. While it is certainly of value to be inclusive of all who identify themselves as Jewish, countless young Jews throughout the country still identify themselves with values and beliefs rooted in Conservative Judaism. If the movement is not there to support them during college, will there still be a way to reconnect with these students once they leave the campus? Will they still be connected to the values of Conservative Judaism, or will they find the other values more attractive?
The Orthodox movement’s college outreach is incredibly strong, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for the efforts they are making on our college campuses, but I am concerned that if they are the only denominational movement left on campuses, they will have the strongest connection to my peers. But do we want to rely on the Orthodox to make the connections to all Jewish students? Will the students who grew up Conservative embrace Orthodoxy, or will they reject Judaism altogether?
With the assistance and support of Koach’s staff, including Rabbi Winick and fellow students and professionals in the Koach network nationwide, I have brought Conservative programming into some of our Hillel events, including Shabbat programs. We now have access to interesting speakers and resources. These Conservative and progressive programs would have been much harder to achieve without support from Koach. At Koach’s yearly weekend retreat, I was able to experience spirited Conservative davening and meaningful and extremely relevant Jewish learning for the first time since USY encampments and conventions. I was able to connect with other Jewish students who are struggling with the same problems as I, to meet fellow campus leaders, and to forge connections to other Conservative students from across the country.
Without a unifying presence throughout the country, how will college students make the leap from USY, Solomon Schechter, or a Conservative upbringing to become an active adult member of the Conservative movement?