College Dropouts
Tue, 07/03/2012
Sam Cohen
Sam Cohen

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 sam.cohen@nyu.edu.

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It really was a very well written and insightful article. Where my opinion would divide is that the Conservative successful alumni of USY and Ramah do not really need the USCJ to remain observant Jews who keep Kosher and modify their lives for Shabbat and Yom Tovim and acquire a habit of Jewish study. Whether these success stories of the United Synagogue dating back half a century return to USCJ congregations once they are employed with their own families has very little to do with whether USCJ keeps an organizational presence on campus. It has a lot to do with what the Conservative experience on campus turns out to be in terms of peers who engage in Kashrut and Shabbat and Hillel activities when they are on their own for the first time when nobody takes attendance. It has even more to do with whether that college experience of true grass roots Judaism can be sustained once the diplomas have been handed out. The USCJ will be a lot better off making its synagogues places that this type of college student will find attractive enough to return to. Those congregations have not done well in the open marketplace for a generation to a large extent because they are institutionalized in format, rather than grass roots.

Thank you to Mr. Cohen for an articulate and well reasoned piece about the Conservative movement's irrational betrayal of its most active young members. Apparently, the leadership is more concerned with the reactive approach of holding on to the intermarried by removing obstacles to their participation in shul life. Demographically, this will make the movement identical to Reform Judaism, which is also in a process of retrenchment.

Some have speculated if the Conservative movement actually wants to encourage greater education and involvement. Its parallel abandonment of the Schechter Schools indicates that it is more focused on attracting the marginally committed than on encouraging the development of leadership among young people like Mr. Cohen.

In the long and even medium term, the Conservative movement will not sustain itself as an independent and vital sector of American Jewish life. Mr. Cohen correctly points out that other post denominational organizations will fill the vacuum it leaves behind.
However, that vacuum may occupy quite a small space compared to Orthodoxy.
Thank you again for an insightful essay.

The problem isnt funding or the programming. Jewish "movements" and organizations are only reflections of their constituents. JLIC succeeds because the students attracted to it are already committed to or curious about a life of values and ritual practice according to Torah. We cant teach young Jews that being Jewish is the same as being not Jewish and expect them to live a Jewish life in the secular world.

I disagree that the Conservative movement has already dropped out of college. It's clear that the professional leadership of one Conservative institution, USCJ, wants to drop out of college as I wrote last month at: http://jewschool.com/2012/06/04/28779/uscj-wants-to-drop-out-of-college/
Their board strongly differed & made a fundraising goal to help sustain it through this year. A six month fundraising goal of $130K for an established national organization is very possible IF Koach presents a vision of what it would do with the money & how it will grow. For an organization that supposedly generates around 750 alumni per year, that's less than $50 each from just 4 years of alumni.

Unfortunately, they're not making this effort. As I wrote at: http://jewschool.com/2012/06/20/28908/congratulations-koach-supporters-now-what/ I see no evidence that the professional or lay staff at USCJ/Koach or the Koach alumni who mobilized around a board vote are seriously engaging the bigger issues. The savekoach.org is now a static website with a fundraising link with no discussion on how to actually save Koach. Our articles are the only two I've seen after the USCJ board vote even talking about what's next.

Many of the ideas you suggest can and are getting resources, funds, and staff from people trained or affiliated with Conservative institutions. Just because they're not all branded Conservative doesn't mean they don't provide a Conservative or intellectual/active/egalitarian presence on campuses. The failure is in the Conservative institutions who should be connecting people, programs, and communities to make a movement out of these separate efforts regardless of the label we stick on that movement.

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