Last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the Conservative movement’s affiliated synagogues, discontinued Koach, the movement’s main outreach program to college students.
That move seemed exactly in tune with the findings of the recent Pew study, which showed a diminished, steadily shrinking Conservative movement, although it did conflict with United Synagogue’s own strategic plan. That plan, which United Synagogue’s board adopted in 2011, “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.”
Many of the students who were part of Koach, and who were enthusiastic participants in its signature event, the annual Koach Kallah, agreed with United Synagogue’s ideals, if not with its actions. They are putting together a new organization, Masorti on Campus, and offering a Shabbaton, based on the best of the kallah, that they hope will help grow their organization. (Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America.)
“There are a significant number of students across North America who consider themselves to be committed Conservative Jews, or who identity with the movement as closest to the way they interact with Judaism,” said Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a senior at the University of Hartford and Masorti on Campus’s director of institutional advancement. Those students “find significance in following halacha and have egalitarian values,” he said. Those are the people at whom the Shabbaton is aimed.
“We are trying to fill the void that was left when Koach was shut down,” he said. Many students care about it, “significant numbers of them, and we can’t just let them be lost.
“We can’t let campus organizations flail around by themselves. There has to be some sort of network, some kind of umbrella organization.”
Even when students are drawn to the Conservative movement’s particular combination of tradition and egalitarianism, Mr. Leiderman continued, they often look for but fail to find the kind of real community that Orthodox groups establish with apparent ease. “We are trying to work on community building,” he said.
“That’s the theme of the Shabbaton – community building.”
Douglas Kandl of Cranford, who has just graduated from Pace University and is about to start a graduate program there, is a founder of Masorti on Campus. He talked about how Koach died. (“United Synagogue says that Koach is ‘on hiatus,’ but I think that really it is defunct,” he said parenthetically.)
“I was really involved with Koach in its last year,” he said. “We tried to save it. We were out at the Israel Day Parade in 2012, getting signatures. We got about 1,000 all together.
“We presented at the United Synagogue’s board meeting, and they renewed Koach for a year. They gave us $100,000 and said we had to fund raise about another $100,000. We did. Koach ran through last year.
“I was very involved at the Koach Kallah last year, at the University of Pennsylvania. We had 138 people; it was very successful.”
But then, despite some last-minute attempts, Koach was defunded.
“What happened next was that a lot of students reached out to me, saying that they wanted to do a Shabbaton on campus, something like the Koach Kallah, so we decided that it would be our starting point,” Mr. Kandl continued. “We also hope to run an Onward Israel trip through the Jewish Agency, and we hope that we will have a program to Israel that will combine an internship and Jewish studies in the summer of 2015.”
The Shabbaton, which will be held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, is the result of a meeting Mr. Kandl and other students had with representatives of Conservative movement groups, including JTS, the Los Angeles-based Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the National Ramah Commission, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Argentina, the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Marom, and Masorti Olami. (The last two organizations are Conservative groups based outside North America.)
“Some of them” – particularly Women’s League – “are giving us money, and some are giving us advertising,” Mr. Kandl said.
The goal is to draw 80 students; after two weeks, 25 had registered, which puts it firmly on track, he added.
The Shabbaton will be modeled on the Koach Kallah, but there will be significant differences. “The kallah was more about Jewish learning,” Mr. Kandl said. “We will have Torah lishmah sessions, but it will be more about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus. We are bringing in an organization called Present Tense, which works with Jewish startups; the coordinator will be Megan Goldman, a rabbinical student who led a Shabbaton with similar ideas last year.” The chancellor of JTS, Dr. Arnold Eisen, Marom Olami’s director, Avigail Ben Aryeh, and the director of the Conservative Yeshiva, Rabbi Joel Levy, all will join the group as well.
Mr. Kandl, who grew up in USY, the Conservative movement’s youth group, was active in Jewish life on campus, including Hillel. “I think that there needs to be more on campus for progressive Jews in general, not just for Conservative Jews,” he said. “The URJ” – that’s the Union for Reform Judaism – “doesn’t have a college program right now. The market is only Chabad, Aish, and the Orthodox Union. We want to fill that gap.
“Chabad is very good at marketing itself. It’s good at pitching Judaism to them. When the others advertise themselves, they talk about Orthodox Judaism, but Chabad says just Judaism.
“We are learning from them.”
Mr. Leiderman, who went to the Moriah School in Englewood through eighth grade and then to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan for high school, is majoring in Jewish studies and considering rabbinical school. He said that he is unable to make sense of some of his peers’ assumptions about Conservative Judaism.
There are students who “for political reasons don’t identify with the movement,” he said. “There is a growing negative feeling toward Conservative Judaism, but it is based on a misunderstanding of what Conservative Judaism represents. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but when you ask college students what they’re looking for, they’ll say ‘Jewish tradition and egalitarianism.’
“Those are the values of Conservative Judaism, but there is some kind of disconnect, where they don’t actually see the movement as committed to halacha and egalitarianism.”
Despite the Pew study, “I do think the movement has a future,” he said. “Right now, I am in Jerusalem, on a two-week winter break program. Not all of the 20 of us on the program identify themselves as Conservative Jews, but we all identify with intellectual Judaism. Holding to traditional halacha is important and relevant, but so is not being afraid to question, to discuss openly. Pluralism – holding different opinions as valid – is important.
“Conservative Judaism embodies intellectual Judaism.”
He takes issue with the Pew report. “It is seen by us – by college students – as not making sense, as not representative of what we see as reality.
“We don’t think that the Conservative movement is dying. It will look different, but it’s going to continue. It’s not going away.
“We love this type of Judaism. It’s how we express ourselves.”
Marc Gary is the Jewish Theological Seminary’s executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer; he represented the seminary at the discussions that gave birth to the Shabbaton. He said that the seminary, like most of the rest of the movement, is working to keep college students connected. “It is a mistake to infer from the decision of one organization to discontinue a particular college program that there is a lack of commitment among the leaders of Conservative Judaism to our college students,” he wrote in an email.
In a late phone conversation, Mr. Gary cited as examples of new initiatives the Nishma program, begun last summer, which provided 15 students with intensive Torah study at JTS. “We will have maybe 20 students this year, maybe more,” he said. “It has a stellar facility, and we already have more than 15 applications.”
He also talked about Reshet Ramah, a new program aimed at graduates of the highly successful network of summer sleepaway and day camps that span the country. “A significant number of Ramah staff already are on college campuses,” he said. “And we have had some alumni events where we partner with Reshet Ramah here, and it attracts college and graduate students. It is a strong recognition on the part of Ramah and JTS that we already have thousands of present and former campers and staff on college campuses already.”
And, of course, there is the Masorti on Campus Shabbaton.
“One of the great strengths is that it is a student-led organization, without a top-down structure,” Mr. Gary said. The program’s goal is to train leaders, who “will go back to their campuses and galvanize students there. It is a different concept, that students will be most effective in galvanizing their own communities.”