|In February, students gathered at the Koach kallah in Boston. photos courtesy of Koach|
Reports last week that Koach, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s college outreach program, would lose its funding and be suspending has perturbed and energized other branches of Conservative Judaism, students, and lay leaders.
Richard Moline, longtime director of the Koach program and now United Synagogue’s chief outreach officer, confirmed that the organization’s board of trustees, set to meet Sunday in suburban Detroit, will consider a recommendation that Koach “be put on hiatus until long-term and proper funding can be secured.”
“The hard realities of budget and finance have put United Synagogue in a position where it needs to make some difficult decisions,” Moline said.
Because Koach is not a membership organization, it is hard to gauge the number of students who will be affected by its suspension, he said. He noted, however, that the number is definitely in the thousands, including students who participate on campus, those who attend the annual kallah, those who participate in a Koach Shabbat, and those who use the group’s Internet resources or take advantage of other educational materials.
Students have organized savekoach.org, a petition movement to rescue the college organization.
The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism already had come to Koach’s aid earlier this year. The group raised about $35,000 in a “last-minute” campaign to save February’s Koach kallah, its annual conference, according to its communications director, Rhonda Kahn, who lives in Teaneck. The funding from Women’s League allowed Koach to subsidize registration for kallah participants and attendance doubled over the previous year.
Kahn said Women’s League stepped forward when it seemed unclear that Koach would be able to hold its annual gathering. “We said we would underwrite as much as we could,” she said. “We’re committed to continuing to support the kallah. Clearly, it’s an issue that resonates with our members. The campaign struck a nerve with our sisterhoods, who donated some of their own funds. They feel it should be supported.”
Sarrae Crane, Women’s League executive director, added that the group is “committed to the perpetuation of Conservative Judaism and believes it is important that there be Conservative Judaism on campus. We’re happy to support the program, under the auspices of the United Synagogue.”
Moline, the outreach director, applauded the support from Women’s League and noted the efforts of savekoach.org.
“Many students are writing about their Jewish journeys and how they have been influenced to go to rabbinical school and become leaders of the Jewish community as a result of their experience with Koach,” he said.
Douglas Kandl of Cranford, a junior at Pace University in New York and president of the campus Hillel, serves as the Koach representative at Pace and “is active with Koach as an organization.”
“We’re trying to keep it alive and vibrant,” said Kandl, the driving force behind the initiative. Made up of more than 20 other students from campuses all across the United States – “from Rutgers, Hunter, Binghamton, the University of Illinois, Queens College, and colleges in California” – the group mobilized as soon as it became aware of United Synagogue’s proposal.
“We were first notified [a week ago] Thursday,” said Kandl, adding that he learned of it when other Koach members were called by the New York Jewish Week following “a United Synagogue leak.”
“We started to organize people right before Shabbat,” he said. “We thought we would kick off the campaign at the Celebrate Israel parade, where Hillels march together. We got 140 signatures right there.”
He estimates that by the time this article goes to print, the group will have collected more than 500 signatures.
“It’s rising every minute,” he said, pointing out that except for one negative remark, all other comments on the site have supported the effort to scuttle the budget-cutting proposal.
Publicity has been done through Facebook, blog postings, and mailings on synagogue and organizational listserves.
“We’ve used all different mediums,” he said. “We want to protect the reputation of United Synagogue, and people want to see the Conservative movement flourish. People in synagogues are concerned with the future, not just the balance sheet. It’s not just the bottom line but what will happen down the road.”
Kandl said he has been very surprised by how quickly word has spread.
“We’re hearing from people all throughout North America,” he said, noting that when he first came to Pace, there were few resources specifically for Conservative Jewish students. Koach, he said, was very forthcoming, helping him with resources, such as siddurim. He also attended the Koach kallah.
“Without Koach, there’s no future for the Conservative movement,” he said. “College is the most vital point in people’s lives and there are so many Jewish groups to choose from [on campus]. You need Koach to keep them in the Conservative movement.”
Raffi Mark of Wayne, the new president of the Rutgers Hillel, pointed out that this year, his group received grant monies from national Koach for a program intern as well as a monthly lunch-and-learn program, including both “an inexpensive Shabbat lunch and Jewish learning.”
The Shabbat programs, he said, “attracted a good crowd,” drawing people to Shabbat services who might not have come otherwise. Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, estimates that there are some 2,000 Conservative students on campus.
While such activities are helped by funds from the national Koach organization, Rutgers Koach programs also are subsidized by student fees, Mark said.
“Rutgers Koach will by no means end because of this,” said the Hillel president, adding that it is hard to keep track of the precise number of students who attend Koach programs, because they go to other Hillel programs as well.
Mark, whose father, Randall Mark, is rabbi of the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Shomrei Torah in Wayne, said he has been working and talking with other student leaders involved in the initiative “to see what they’re doing and where they’re going.” He also has spoken with “lots of different Conservative students on different campuses.”
“Some feel the decision doesn’t affect them, and others are at a loss and don’t know how they’ll run their community next year,” he said. “There are a lot of different opinions and feelings.”
Mark pointed out that Rutgers is now engaged in a Conservative outreach initiative to find new sources of funding.
“That would have a transformative effect on our community, with or without Koach national funding,” he said.
Getraer suggested that the movement to cut Koach nationally “is indicative of a major problem.
“As our national institutions are challenged financially, they are not prioritizing the future of their own movements and of our Jewish community,” he said, pointing out that 90 percent of American Jews go to college, and the college campus is where they make critical decisions about their “values, activities, and identity.
“This is the time and place to engage them and affect them so that they are part of our Jewish community for the rest of their lives,” he said. “We can’t disengage from the college campus, or we will disengage from our own future.”
Getraer said that about three years ago, when the national Reform movement cut its funding for the Kesher college program, Rutgers Hillel approached Reform leaders in New Jersey, asking them to organize a grassroots effort to provide for Reform students on campus.
“The Reform leadership of the state stepped up to plate and created an outreach initiative at Rutgers, funding a full-time reform rabbi as well as learning and educational programs,” Getraer said, noting that he is already in discussions with leading Conservative rabbis across New Jersey, asking that they do something similar.
“We have 6,000 Jewish undergraduates,” he said. “That’s the second largest Jewish undergraduate population in the country. If people want to make an impact on the state’s Jewish community, this is the place to do it.
“This decision regarding Koach nationally gives us the opportunity to decide whether the Conservative community cares about the college campus and this cohort.”
Getraer noted that Orthodox groups already are well represented on campus. For the past seven years, for example, the Orthodox Union has sent a rabbinic couple to work in Hillel. The Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic sect also has a growing presence on campuses.
“They understand the importance of the college years,” he said of the Orthodox groups. “The Conservative movement will have to decide if they’re ready to step up to the plate and answer the challenge. I think they will.”