The budget committee of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism will recommend that funding be halted for Koach, the movement’s national college outreach program, when the governing board meets June 10, as part of an effort to reduce the organization’s deficit.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week on Thursday that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country.
He said painful decisions were necessary in seeking to balance the United Synagogue budget, and that while “the impact [of Koach] on those we reached was quite high, we had to look at the return on our investment,” suggesting that the $225,000 program was seen as too costly in terms of the number of students who participated on 25 campuses.
The Koach program had been in jeopardy last year when Rabbi Wernick revealed plans to downsize it because of budgetary constraints. (A decade ago Koach had a budget of $750,000).
In response, a number of college students took to Facebook and YouTube to express how important Koach was in their lives. More than 300 signed a Facebook petition calling on the United Synagogue to “save Conservative Jewish life on college campuses,” and the Rabbinical Assembly, the group representing the movement’s rabbis, spoke out in favor of the program.
There were indications that, partly as a result of the students’ efforts, Koach would continue, though with limited resources.
Student leaders contacted on Thursday expressed surprise and disappointment with the budget committee’s recommendation to end the program.
“I’d be interested to see what Rabbi Wernick’s reasoning is,” said Jodi Schwartz of Seattle, Washington, one of six students on Koach’s steering committee. “When he came to our convention in Boston in February he seemed optimistic,” which in turn sparked a sense of hope among students.
Ethan Goldberg of Boston, another member of the Koach steering committee, noted that the 145 college students who attended the Koach convention in Boston was double the attendance of the 2010 convention.
Ben Goldberg of Chicago, another member of the steering committee, said “it is clear to me that the Conservative movement has very specific space within Jewish college life to fill, and I would be deeply disappointed if the movement’s institutions decided that they were no longer able to fill that gap.”
The 22-year-old, about to graduate from Northwestern University, plans to spend next year at a Conservative yeshiva in Israel before enrolling at the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He said he has personally benefited from Koach over the last three years. “It confirmed for me that Jewish leadership is what I would like to dedicate my life to,” Goldberg said, adding: “I think it is not logical to invest so heavily in youth programs in synagogues and in summer camps and then say as soon as a student turns 18 and goes to college that we no longer have anything for you. I don’t see how that makes sense.”
On Thursday Rabbi Wernick said that while his organization remains committed to serving college youth, it has over the last three years been “very aggressive in aligning budget, staff and governance with our vision and mission in a strategic way.” Faced with an aging membership, a long-term decline in membership and attendant financial challenges, the United Synagogue has been focusing on shoring up existing congregations, seeking to integrate the educational system and engage the next generation of leadership.
The rabbi pointed to success in greatly increasing philanthropic giving while seeking efficiencies in governance, board size and staffing. With it all, though, he acknowledged that the organization is not out of the financial woods and that “non-strategic” programs had to be cut back or cut entirely. He said he held out hope that “philanthropic resources” could be found to bring back Koach after the program is closed in the near future.
Editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report.