by Alyssa Schwager
I am a junior at University of Maryland-College Park, and I am a member of KOACH.
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. I went to Hebrew School, I participated in Kadima and USY, and now I am heavily involved in KOACH (a former Gabbai). However, my path to sticking with Conservative Judaism was not an easy one. When I first came to University of Maryland, I lived in a regular dorm, about as far from Hillel as you can get. I went to Friday night services carrying my umbrella (it was pouring rain, but at least I made it!), and when I walked in to Hillel, I was stunned. Instead of being welcomed with open arms by the vibrant Conservative community I was used to from home, I was gawked at. The large Orthodox community overwhelmed me, and the sheer size and number of people at Hillel made me feel small and nervous. I finally made it inside, up the stairs, and to the KOACH services. Unfortunately, the crowd was still very overwhelming and, being a scared freshman, I didn’t meet anyone or find my community. I left Hillel very disappointed and disillusioned.
Soon after my disappointing experience at Hillel, I was approached by a campus Kiruv organization. The organization offered me home-cooked meals, intimidate discussions, a welcoming community and a family atmosphere that Hillel really lacked. I was hooked. I began attending classes regularly, participating in all of the Shabbat meals, and I found myself attracted to the life offered to me by the organization. I became more observant, attending services more, keeping Kashrut more, and keeping Shabbat more. All of these positive changes in my life left me feeling very alone and confused – how could I follow the life that I saw myself leading that would bring me to the community I wanted to be a member of without losing my status as an equal in services? I could not wrap my head around no longer being able to read Torah, sing loudly, or sit with my father during prayer. These were major stumbling blocks for me, and I began feeling more and more alienated from both communities.
Fortunately, an acquaintance happened to find out that I was Jewish, organized and looking to meet more people at Hillel. She asked me consider replacing her as Gabbai Sheini for the next KOACH board. After careful consideration, I accepted her offer. I have never made a better decision for myself in college. As soon as I joined KOACH board, the doors to Hillel and my own uniquely Conservative community opened up. Suddenly, I had a reason to talk to everyone, and everyone knew me. What used to feel like a building that I would never feel comfortable in suddenly became my second home. More importantly, all of my doubts about how I could be observant, have a community, and still maintain my egalitarian beliefs went away. There was a place for me on campus that allowed me to feel loved, protected, and like I belong while fostering my spiritual growth and observance. A place called KOACH.
KOACH truly changed my campus experience. I no longer find the lifestyle offered by the Kiruv organizations tempting, and I am able to reach out to newcomers and make Hillel seem smaller for them. I am happy with myself, with my observance and with the community I have found here. If KOACH were not here, me and my many other Kiruv-oriented KOACH friends would have never found our way back to our roots in Conservative Judaism. As the economic crisis hits USCJ ever-more-strongly, the only way to keep Conservative college students oriented with the movement is through KOACH. Nothing could be worse for the future growth of the Conservative movement than majorly decreasing support for KOACH, as an entire generation will be lost from the movement. Please consider my story and realize that it is not just mine – it is that of at least 10 other students at UMD alone, not to mention the rest of the country. KOACH matters, and we are the leaders of not only tomorrow, but also of today.