Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of Koach, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year. With such a blatant reluctance to internally sustain Koach, and the near impossibility of supporters raising such a sum, the USCJ message is clear: we are no longer able to support our college students.
Koach lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.
It is as if the Reform and Conservative movements have dropped out of college, telling their friends they need to go take care of their elderly grandparents and can’t afford to keep paying tuition. College just isn’t worth the investment.
The failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to adequately support their collegiate adherents is a major disappointment for those of us who grew up ready to put our heart and soul into sustaining those movements.
But what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.
Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise. In between those two moments, what will their Jewish experience be like? What programs will be available to them? Who will reach out to them with a welcoming hand, ready to equip them with the tools necessary to drive their own Judaism upon graduation?
The answers to those questions will play a major role in shaping the next generation of American Jews.
Increasingly, the answers tend to involve the word “Orthodox.” As the Union for Reform Judaism and now the USCJ abandoned the college scene, Orthodox campus programs have increased and expanded. The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.
The growth of these Orthodox programs is an incredible accomplishment, and the educational and social model they provide is a blessing.
But I also believe passionately that the spiritual and inclusive model egalitarian Judaism provides is a blessing, too. And I am concerned and dismayed at how the funders of egalitarian Judaism have dropped the college ball. The tough part about dropping this particular ball is that once you do, it rolls away, down the hill and out of sight. To expect it to just bounce back and start paying synagogue dues in a few years is a dangerous fantasy.
So what steps can we take to revitalize egalitarian/progressive Judaism on college campuses?
The first step is to move past institutional thinking. As numerous studies have shown, denominational Judaism has lost its meaning and relevance for my generation. We’re searching to find new ways of being Jewish without a specific affiliation.
This past semester at NYU, we experimented with one of those new ways. Inspired by the success of Kehilat Hadar and other independent minyanim, two friends (a former Kesher president, and a Schechter/Ramah alumna) and I (a former Koach president) formed a new nondenominational egalitarian Friday night student minyan.
By casting off denominations, we could include all Jews in our potential membership, and indeed we had a full range of observance levels and backgrounds. By shedding external labels, we had the opportunity to articulate exactly what we stand for, and why we stand for it. By building a culture of communal invitation instead of club initiation, our attendance grew over the course of the semester to become four times as large as the average Koach and Kesher services combined. The resulting communal energy was palpable.
A similar growth in energy could come from crafting a new model for nondenominational educational/rabbinic staff.
Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator program, which places young rabbis from a variety of religious backgrounds to serve on 10 campuses as educational and personal resources for students, is an excellent step in the right direction and deserves to be expanded.
Great promise also lies in forming campus partnerships with organizations like Hadar, Pardes and Kevah, in which alumni from those programs serve as campus educators. Freed from denominational obligations, this new cohort of mentors will be able to support and empower all campus Jews in a genuine, helpful way.
Because that is exactly what has to happen. The Reform and Conservative movements have dropped out of collegiate Jewish life. Let’s hope their students don’t drop out of it along with them.
Sam Cohen is a senior at NYU and a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.