When Rutgers Hillel hosts the 2017 Masorti on Campus Shabbaton on February 10 to 12 — the third such event since a group of students resurrected and restructured the Conservative movement’s Koach college program — it will demonstrate once again that organizations can be structured from the bottom up.
“We’re driven by students’ needs,” Eric Leiderman said. Mr. Leiderman, who grew up in Englewood — his family recently moved to Florida, he said — is a co-founder and interim executive director of Masorti on Campus, which was created during the summer of 2013. “There’s turnover every four years, and changing needs, whether a group wants to have a speaker or options for buying new siddurim. We serve as a resource and a middleman.
“We also try to support these communities by getting student leaders to share best practices” and helping to organize events such as the Shabbatons, he added. “We stay away from the top-down [model], maintaining a grassroots style. When students latch on and take ownership, it works well.”
Masorti on Campus has a good relationship with Masorti Olami — The World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, as well as with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Mr. Leiderman said. It is housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “which is helping us with different logistics,” and funded through donors. Mr. Leiderman said that at a recent fundraising event for Masorti Olami, “I met a lot of people excited to work with us.” That includes Marom Olami, which works with young adults and has pioneered the idea of Masorti rabbis “adopting” communities near them. “I’ve already discussed this with the RA,” Mr. Leiderman said.
While the group does not have formal affiliates — some college groups have adopted their name and some, including the group at Rutgers, still call themselves Koach — and while the college movement’s self-identification ranges from Conservative to Masorti to traditional-egalitarian, Mr. Leiderman said the model Rutgers uses “is what we’re looking for.”
Koach at Rutgers, now headed by Michal Karlin — who served as a Masorti on Campus fellow last year — meets weekly and has special events throughout the semester. The organization functions as a subgroup of Hillel. Mr. Leiderman said that “at least a dozen campuses we’ve worked with have this set-up.”
“We use the terms” —Masorti, Conservative, traditional-egalitarian — “interchangeably, although some have strict feelings about one or the other,” he said. In its own mission statement, Masorti on Campus uses all three terms. “We tell members, define yourself but don’t constrain yourself. One of the qualifications for those we work with is that they have egalitarian services as a standard option.”
Earlier Shabbatons have been hosted by Columbia University and the University of Maryland. “The host campus invites students from other schools,” Mr. Leiderman said. “But Rutgers is not just using the campus as a conference center. We’re being embraced by the community.” While invitations are issued to all college students, “we’ll primarily get students from those campuses with active communities.” On the other hand, previous Shabbatons have welcomed students from Virginia and North Carolina. “It’s an interesting and dynamic mix,” he said.
Mr. Leiderman said that originally there had been some animosity between his organization and those who disbanded Koach. (Koach, which was run by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, put the organization “on hiatus,” as it said, in 2013; it still hibernates, and seems unlikely to be awakened.) Still, Mr. Leiderman said, some professional leaders, like former Koach director Richard Moline, “were there for students inspired to start the project.” He noted that relationships have since improved, “and we’re reaching out to USY,” United Synagogue Youth, United Synagogue’s youth group. His goal, Mr. Leiderman said, is “to support and grow traditional-egalitarian groups on campus and eliminate the politics of using the Conservative brand.” But, he added, “There’s not as much negative feeling about the brand as when we started.”
For the upcoming Shabbaton, he added, “We’re involved in fundraising, providing resources, speakers, advertising, and outreach to various Hillels.” He said his group is benefiting from the assistance of Rabbi Dave Siegel, the director of Hofstra Hillel. That group, he said, “more than quadrupled in size” under Rabbi Siegel’s leadership.
Alex Hamilton and Meredith Brooks are co-chairing the Rutgers Shabbaton. Ms. Brooks, a senior, is from Kearny, in Hudson County, a place she describes as having only a few Jews. “I was one of only a few Jewish kids in public school,” she said. Still, she was active in USY and wanted to continue being active. “I decided to go to Rutgers, which Hillel calls ‘a great place to be Jewish.’”
Ms. Brooks noted that the Shabbaton will be “a good reunion place for people in USY, Camp Ramah, and NATIV,” programs run by the Conservative movement. “Even if they’re not into learning, there will be plenty of opportunities for social interaction.” She is hoping for some 80 participants, who will be housed in students’ apartments, dorms, and homes. Most probably will come from the Northeast, she said. In addition to attendees’ registration fees, which will help defray some of the cost, the Shabbaton has received donations from groups such as Hillel’s Ezra Fellows.
Ms. Brooks said the event will strive for a balance of “fun events with more learning-based events.” She and her co-chair — note the name, Alex Hamilton — not coincidentally have chosen the theme of revolution for the Shabbaton. Rutgers was founded in 1766 — 10 years before the United States was born — and recently marked its 250th year. “We’ll explore how we can have a revolution in the Jewish community, whether in changing Hillel or improving the Conservative community on campus or the general Jewish community,” Ms. Brooks said. A walking tour of the historical part of the campus will be among the Shabbaton’s activities.
Shabbat dinner and services will be followed, on Saturday night, by “a bar mitzvah-style party with dancing, food, and fun.” On Sunday, sessions will conclude, and participants will be invited to a Torah learning service.