Conservative youth seek campus revival
Cranford grad student leads push to restore college outreach effort
Last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the Conservative movement’s affiliated congregations, discontinued Koach, the movement’s main outreach program to college students.
The move disappointed many in the movement, who noted that according to USCJ’s own strategic plan, adopted in 2011, “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.”
Some alumni of Koach are now trying to restore that bridge and are putting together a new organization, Masorti on Campus. The result of a meeting between students and representatives of various Conservative groups, the fledgling organization is offering a Shabbaton, based on the signature Koach Kallah — an annual gathering of students that featured workshops, community service, text study, networking, and Shabbat observance. They hope it will be the seed of a new Conservative movement on campus. (Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America.)
The event, to be held Feb. 21-23 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will include Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the movement’s flagship seminary, plus Torah study and practical advice on growing Conservative Judaism on campus.
Douglas Kandl of Cranford, who recently graduated from Pace University and is about to start a graduate program there, is a founder of Masorti on Campus.
The Shabbaton is the result of a meeting 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, and two organizations representing the movement outside North America, Marom and Masorti Olami.
“Some of them” — particularly Women’s League — “are giving us money, and some are giving us advertising,” Kandl said.
The goal is to draw 80 students; after two weeks, 25 had registered, which puts it firmly on track, he said.
“I was really involved with Koach in its last year,” Kandl said. “We tried to save it. We were out at the Salute to Israel Parade [in New York City] in 2012, getting signatures; we got about 1,000 altogether.” Kandl also helped raise about $100,000, which, when matched by USCJ, renewed Koach for a year until the organization decided to put the program on “hiatus.”
“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,” 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 will be modeled on the Koach Kallah, but there will be significant differences. “The kallah was more about Jewish learning,” Kandl said. “We will have Torah lishma sessions, but it will be more about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus.” The Shabbaton will feature PresenTense, an organization that works with Jewish startups, and will be coordinated by Megan Goldman, a rabbinical student who led a Shabbaton with similar ideas last year, Kandl said.
Marc Gary, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at JTS, 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 e-mail.
In a later phone conversation, 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.
He also talked about Reshet Ramah, a new program aimed at graduates of the highly successful network of summer sleep-away 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,” 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.”
Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a senior at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, is Masorti on Campus’s director of institutional advancement.
“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,” he said. Those students “find significance in following Halacha and have egalitarian values,” he said.
“We are trying to fill the void that was left when Koach was shut down,” he said.
“I think there needs to be more on campus for progressive Jews in general, not just for Conservative Jews,” said Kandl, who grew up in USY, the Conservative movement’s youth group, and was active in Jewish life on campus, including Hillel. “The URJ” — 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.”