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Op-Ed: To thrive, Conservative movement requires continuity in college

NEW YORK (JTA) — A Conservative Jew, I am a third-generation member of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, N.J., was very active in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth and helped create a presence for Koach, the movement’s college program, at my college, Pace University. 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.

I am worried, however, about the Conservative movement’s commitment to my age cohort.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced in early June that it would be putting Koach on hiatus for the indefinite future. Within hours, students from across North America, including myself, formed the Save Koach initiative. Thanks to the efforts of many, USCJ gave Koach a reprieve, allocating it $100,000 and giving the program until Dec. 31 to raise an additional $130,000.

Koach is 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 camps and USY, young Jews by themselves cannot make the leap from being Conservative Jewish high school students to becoming committed Conservative Jewish adults. If we do not provide an infrastructure of involvement for Conservative college students, we run the risk of losing a generation of Conservative Jewish members and leaders.  

Sustaining and eventually increasing funding for Koach will allow the Conservative movement to survive and flourish for generations to come.

Many have asked, “Where do we go from here?” 

Save Koach has been devising fundraising strategies and improvements to the operating model. In the coming weeks, we plan to announce national fundraising initiatives that also are intended to establish strong connections for Koach participants to the greater Conservative community.

With the support of a movement, we can be sure to maintain strong continuity throughout a young Jewish individual’s life. Independent, nondenominational programs might work at schools with a large population of leaders able to support one another, but schools such as mine need the support of the larger movement. Our small size reduces our ability to identify and develop experienced leaders. Smaller independent programs rely on 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. 

A variety of Jewish movements are represented on the typical college campus. Each of the 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 identify with the values and beliefs rooted in Conservative Judaism. If the movement is not supporting them during their college years, will there be a way to reconnect with these young adults once they leave the college world? Will they remain connected to the values espoused by Conservative Judaism, or will they find the other values to which they have been more exposed during college more attractive? Is the movement willing to gamble its future that these young adults will be able to reconnect successfully?

The Orthodox movement’s college outreach is incredibly strong. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the efforts that Orthodox groups 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. By relying on the Orthodox to connect to all Jewish students, will we be providing a black-and-white choice? Will the countless individuals who grew up Conservative embrace Orthodoxy, or will they reject Judaism altogether?

With the assistance and support of staff members at Koach, including its director, Rabbi Elyse Winick, and fellow students and professionals in the Koach network nationwide, I have brought Conservative programming into some of our Pace 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 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, which he helped establish, Koach representative and a Hillel Bridging the Gap fellow.)

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