Investing in Conservative Jewish Life

by David Kaplinsky

This summer, as I studied abroad in London and travelled through Europe, I did not expect that one of the major wonders I’d encounter would come via my connection and commitment to Conservative Jewish life. With no concrete Jewish program lined up for me this year, I had the lingering fear that after summers of Jewish camp, Israel trips, and other Jewish experiences I would be bereft of a Jewish community. However, I was happily proved wrong after my first Shabbat at the Masorti affiliated New London Synagogue (Masorti being the International equivalent of the Conservative movement), famously founded by early Masorti leader, Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Though the tunes were not always identical to those I knew, nor the synagogue architecture like any other I had encountered in the U.S., I nonetheless felt at home. The reason behind my comfort here was seemingly intangible, but I think this feeling came from the traditional yet simultaneously down-to-earth, welcoming nature of the synagogue community. The previous week I had attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue, slightly closer to where I was staying, and though it was a generally pleasant experience, I realized quickly that I didn’t truly feel comfortable there. Yet this week, I knew immediately I was in the right place, and that feeling was solidified when I was invited into the home of longtime synagogue members for Shabbat dinner. This family not only hosted me every Friday night for the rest of my trip, but also welcomed me to stay with them whenever I needed. I considered them my adopted Jewish- English family.

Though the Conservative/Masorti establishment might disagree, I think being a Conservative Jew is as much about these intangible connections and feelings of belonging, as about a unique approach to Halacha, Jewish law. All Jews are bound by an invisible connection, but the reality is that different Jews feel more at home with people of similar observance and background – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I think intelligent, selective young adults should be making choices about what specific type of community – each with a distinct type of prayer, communal feeling, and Jewish philosophy – they want to be a part of in the future. However, the reality is that the Conservative community, the community I have chosen, is in jeopardy of not being an option in the future.

Furthermore, an increasing number of Jewish young people are choosing no option at all, in the form of the “unaffiliated” movement. Though it seems harmless enough, I personally find the trend towards post-denominational Jewish life unsettling in that it seems to favor unification at the expense of real diversity of viewpoints and methodologies. Though some might argue that post-denominationalists all do have different viewpoints, I maintain that the movement towards non-affiliation will eventually lead these Jews to compromise many of their opinions and eventually have few views steadfastly held at all.

Therefore, to preserve the set of views and the community to which I and many others feel the strongest affinity, I think it’s essential to invest in the future of Conservative Jewish life on college campuses under the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s college program KOACH. My Conservative campus community has absolutely strengthened my resolve to continue taking part in Conservative Jewish life long after I finish college, and I believe it should continue providing the same outcome far into the future. Indeed, as a KOACH Intern at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this past year, I was able to garner the monetary and advisory resources of this national organization under the leadership of Rabbi Elyse Winick to begin to transform my Conservative campus community. Saturday morning Shabbat services expanded from once-a-year to roughly once-a-month. Our social programming, previously non-existent, became some of the most dynamic in the Jewish community. The Conservative minyan spearheaded progressive Torah and Jewish Studies with a program known as “Eat and Educate”, where previously all such learning had been the exclusive purview of the Orthodox community. Clearly, I have seen firsthand the transformative power of this organization, and I believe it deserves the opportunity to continue such important work.

Towards this end, I have been convening with a remarkable group of my peers across the country to clarify the essential mission and vision of our movement for the future, as well as draft a strategic plan which will outline the steps to achieve those goals. Furthermore, we are involving many more students in this process by sending out surveys to those involved in KOACH throughout the country to share their input on devising the strategic plan. This feedback will be represented and included in discussions with fellow branches of the Conservative movement at a Conservative-wide summit in September. By formulating these concrete elements of what our organization is meant to do and what we would like to achieve, we aim also to give a strong focus and underpinning to those intangible communal connections that are a central part of our movement. You can view our mission and vision—what we hope to see Conservative Judaism on campus achieving years down the road – at savekoach.org.

David Kaplinsky is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is a BFA Acting major and the current leader of the KOACH Conservative Minyan at Hillel. Additionally, last year he served as a KOACH Intern on his campus. Contact him at kaplins1@illinois.edu