by Douglas Kandl
I have grown up as a Conservative Jew. I am a third generation member of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, New Jersey, and was very active in my United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter and in the Hagalil Region of USY in high school. Since arriving at Pace University, I began working to start a Hillel chapter there, and with the assistance of the Director of KOACH, Rabbi Elyse Winick, I established a KOACH presence on campus. My grandparents and parents have instilled strong Jewish values in me, and I hope to see the Conservative movement thrive for many generations to come.
Recently, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) announced the elimination of their college program KOACH. Within hours of the announcement, students from all over North America, including myself, formed the Save KOACH initiative. Through the efforts of many, we were glad to see the USCJ budget revised and KOACH given $100,000 with a reprieve until December 31st to raise an additional $130,000.
I feel KOACH is absolutely essential to the future of Conservative Judaism. While a great deal of time, money, and effort is consistently committed to pre-college programs including Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Ramah, and USY, this funding cannot be used to its full potential without a backbone supporting an organization that abets these students in the next step of their Jewish journey. Young Jews cannot make the leap from being Conservative Jewish high school students to being committed Conservative Jewish adults on their own. If we do not provide an infrastructure of involvement for Conservative college students, we run the risk of losing a whole generation of Conservative Jewish members and leaders. Sustaining and eventually increasing funding for KOACH will allow the Conservative movement to survive and flourish for ourselves and for generations to come.
So many have asked: “Where do we go from here?”
Save KOACH has been hard at work devising fundraising strategies and improvements to the operating model. We plan to announce national fundraising initiatives in the coming weeks which are also intended to establish strong connections for the KOACH participants to the greater Conservative community.
Unlike the ideas expressed by the opinion piece “College Dropouts”, in The Jewish Week on July 3, 2012, I feel that movement-based programs such as KOACH still serve a vital purpose. The article discussed how the future of progressive Judaism may evolve best by “casting off denominations”. With the support of a movement, we can be sure to maintain a strong continuity throughout a young Jewish individual’s life. Independent programs might work at schools such as NYU, with a large population of leaders able to support one another, and put the hard efforts in, but schools such as mine (Pace University) need the support of the larger movement, because our smaller size reduces our ability to identify and develop experienced leaders. Smaller independent programs rely upon the occasional leader coming up on a campus and shining, while KOACH provides leaders from other Conservative programs and fills the gaps in the existing framework.
There are a variety of Jewish movements represented on the typical college campus. Each of these movements can be differentiated by how literally they take the various scriptures. While it is certainly of value to be inclusive of all who identify themselves as Jewish, countless young Jews throughout the country still identify themselves with the values and beliefs rooted in Conservative Judaism. If the movement is not there providing support during the college experience, will there still be a way to reconnect with these students once they leave the college world? Will they still be connected to the values espoused by Conservative Judaism, or will they find the other values that they have been more exposed to during college more attractive? Is the movement willing to gamble its future that they will be able to reconnect successfully?
The Orthodox movement’s college outreach is incredibly strong, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for the efforts they are making on our college campuses, but I am concerned that if they are the only denominational movement left on campuses, they will have the strongest connection to my peers. But by relying on the Orthodox to make the connections to all Jewish students, will it be a black and white choice? For the countless individuals who grew up Conservative will they embrace Orthodoxy, or will they reject Judaism altogether?
With the assistance and support of KOACH staff, including Rabbi Winick and fellow students and professionals in the KOACH network nationwide, I have brought Conservative programming into some of our Hillel events, including Shabbat programs and access to several interesting speakers and countless resources. These Conservative and progressive programs would have been much harder to achieve without KOACH support. At KOACH Kallah, the organization’s yearly weekend retreat, I was able to experience spirited Conservative davening and meaningful and extremely relevant Jewish learning for the first time since attending USY Encampment and conventions. I was able to connect with other Jewish individuals struggling with the same problems as I, meet fellow campus leaders, and forge connections to other Conservative students from across the country. I came back to Pace with countless new program ideas, and with a refreshed sense of my Conservative Jewish values and identity.
Without a unifying presence throughout the country, how will college students make the leap from USY, Solomon Schechter, or just a Conservative upbringing to be an active member of the Conservative movement as an adult?
Douglas Kandl is a junior at Pace University where he is President of Hillel, KOACH representative, and Bridging the Gap fellow.