Conservative Movement's College Kids Mobilize
A protest by students over the planned reorganization of the Conservative movement's Koach college program has won an acknowledgement that the program is important — but little else.
"There has been no concrete change," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.
He stressed that the planned reorganization never contemplated an end of Koach but rather that it have a "more narrow focus on campus because of [limited] resources."
"That remains the same," he said.
Rabbi Wernick said budgetary constraints and a revamping of his organization's mission has meant that Koach, which received about $400,000 this year, would be receiving only about $225,000 to $250,000 next year. A decade ago, it had a budget of $750,000.
The student protest occurred last month at the 21st convention of Koach in Evanston, Ill., after the 75 attendees were told future conventions were in doubt due to budget constraints. Many of them then took to Facebook and YouTube to extol the virtues of Koach and its importance to them.
More than 300 people signed a Facebook petition calling on United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to "save Conservative Jewish life on college campuses."
The students called themselves the Mahar (Hebrew for "tomorrow") Coalition and wrote that they had formed it as an "alternative to the current restructuring of Koach." They complained that the "drastic cuts proposed for the Koach program lack nuance and are blunt, ineffective and counterproductive."
Their voices were quickly heard. The Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the movement's rabbis, posted a message reading: "We are inspired by the stories of how the Conservative Movement has had such a positive impact on so many of our students. … We here at the RA are inspired by their commitment and dedication to the future of our movement."
Rabbi Wernick thanked the students in a posting on their Facebook page.
"We have been overwhelmed and surprised by the responses you have all sent in," he wrote. "They display a passion and commitment for this program, and demonstrate what an impact (Koach/USY) has had on your lives. … We look forward to continuing to be engaged with you..."
Rabbi Wernick told The Jewish Week that the draft of USCJ's strategic plan had been changed to reflect the importance of Koach.
"We clarified the language so that people understood it would continue to be a presence with the resources that are available," he said. "And we said it is something we hope to engage the rest of the movement in conversation about."
Ethan Goldberg, a 21-year-old junior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and an organizer of the Mahar Coalition, said he was "very satisfied that they changed the language in the strategic plan to increase the importance they place on college outreach."
He said he is also pleased that USCJ is committed to looking for partners to fund Koach.
"We have made them realize that this is a serious issue that has to be addressed, and that they don't have to do it alone anymore," Goldberg said.
Jodi Schwartz, 20 and a junior at the University of Washington in Seattle, said she was distressed to learn at the convention that Koach would continue to operate only on campuses where it is already; it is not on her campus.
"That means I have to live on the East Coast to practice Conservative Judaism," she said.
Schwartz said she is not satisfied with the changes Rabbi Wernick promised would be made to the draft strategic plan, which is to be voted on Sunday by the USCJ board of directors.
"I know there has been a change in wording, but until we see it and find out what it means for us in the long-term, we can't stop trying to get our voice out there," she said. "It's not just a matter of them giving us money, but rather showing that they support us and are not writing us out of the Conservative movement … and making decisions about our future for us."
Rabbi Wernick insisted, however, that the USCJ "brought together a group of college students from Koach and Hillel" when it began discussing the "possibility of shrinking" the Koach budget.
Sandy Johnston, 22, a junior at List College here, said he was unaware that any student in Koach had been involved in the discussions about shrinking Koach's budget.
"There was no official outreach and if there was any outreach, it was done privately," he said. "There was no broad effort to get input from college students."
Johnston said he understood the USCJ's budget constraints and that he was glad the organization is "publicly being positive towards a Conservative Jewish life on college campuses because there was no mention of that in the initial draft — and that's a positive sign."
Making that change is important, according to Ben Goldberg, Ethan's identical twin brother at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and another Mahar organizer, because "we thought the first draft was too focused on the present — it showed a lack of investment in the future.
"And it was saying that Hillel and Chabad and other organizations had saturated the college market and that they were going to focus elsewhere – the post college 20s and 30s. We thought that reasoning was faulty, because it is in college when people decide how to live their lives. The college market is so crowded [with Jewish organizations] because it is so important."
The restructuring of Koach is part of an overhaul of the USCJ that involves refocusing its efforts exclusively to helping its 652-member congregations "deliver a vibrant Conservative Judaism to North America," according to Rabbi Wernick. It comes at a time of declining membership.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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