Stunned by the revelation that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s trustees might be on the verge of defunding Koach, its college program, students have begun a petition drive and fundraising effort to convince them to change their minds at their meeting Sunday.
And the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, which raised $35,000 to subsidize last February’s Koach convention, known as a kallah, has already started receiving donations to help reduce the cost of next year’s scheduled kallah in Philadelphia. One hundred and fifty students participated in the kallah this year, compared to 75 the previous year.
“Women’s League decided that Koach is important,” explained Sarrae Crane, the group’s executive director. “I think there will be resistance [to defunding Koach]. It’s likely there will be people who come up with some funding. The question is what will United Synagogue do, and what will other people do. Will the movement allow Koach to fall apart?”
The budget committee of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism is scheduled to recommend to the board of trustees Sunday that funding be halted for Koach because of the movement’s budgetary constraints.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week last week that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country. Koach operates on 25 campuses; it is not clear how many students are involved in its programs.
Rabbi Wernick said painful decisions were necessary in seeking to balance the United Synagogue budget, and that while “the impact [of Koach] on those we reached was quite high, we had to look at the return on our investment,” suggesting that the $225,000 program was seen as too costly in terms of the number of students who participate.
Crane said there are a number of rabbis who “are upset” with that decision “because a lot of them are products of Koach and its predecessor organizations.”
She said she would not be at Sunday’s trustees’ meeting but has already spoken with Rabbi Wernick to tell him of her organization’s “commitment to doing what we can” to raise money for Koach.
The Reform movement discontinued its campus program, Kesher, in 2009. In place of the stand-alone program, the Union for Reform Judaism opted to partner with Hillel on various efforts, including hiring student interns to reach out to Reform students and publicize programs like the URJ’s Birthright Israel trips and employment opportunities at movement summer camps.
A website, Savekoach.org, has been created that asks the community to sign an online petition in support of Koach and to make donations. Several thousand dollars has been raised, according to one of the organizers, Douglas Kandl, 20, of Cranford, N.J., an incoming junior at Pace University in Manhattan.
“We had a conference call last night with 10 undergraduates from across the country and we would like to see a reversal of the decision [to defund it],” he said. “We would like to have the same funding as we did last year and a dedicated fundraising program to ensure the group’s future. In 48 hours, we collected about 500 signatures.”
Kandl said the students would ask to send a representative to the trustees’ meeting to “explain the importance of the survival of Conservative Judaism. Without Koach, you are going to lose people in college to the ultra-Orthodox and pluralistic Jewish groups. There is not another organization that offers Conservative progamming on campus. All the resources United Synagogue is spending on Camp Ramah, United Synagogue Youth and NATIV [a college leadership program] would be lost when they entered college. This is the first time students are living on their own with so much to explore. It is the most important time of their lives to define their Jewish identity — a time when Koach is needed most.”
In addition to collecting more than 400 online signatures, 140 students who were marching with the Hillel contingent in the Celebrate Israel Parade last Sunday also signed the petition brought around on clipboards by other students.
One of them, Jael Goldstein of Chicago who chaired the Koach chapter at Barnard College, described Koach as a “comfort bubble amid all the craziness of college.”
Haley Schulman, who just completed her junior year at Binghamton University, said there was “no other forum of Conservative Judaism [on campus]; Koach is it.”
The Koach program was in jeopardy last year too, when Rabbi Wernick revealed plans to downsize it. (A decade ago Koach had a budget of $750,000).
In response, a number of college students took to Facebook and YouTube to express how important Koach was in their lives. More than 300 signed a Facebook petition calling on the United Synagogue to “save Conservative Jewish life on college campuses,” and the Rabbinical Assembly, the group representing the movement’s rabbis, spoke out in favor of the program.
Rabbi Wernick said that while his organization remains committed to serving college youth, it has over the last three years been “very aggressive in aligning budget, staff and governance with our vision and mission in a strategic way.” Faced with an aging membership, a long-term decline in membership and attendant financial challenges, the United Synagogue has been focusing on shoring up existing congregations, seeking to integrate the educational system and engage the next generation of leadership.
Editor Gary Rosenblatt and editorial intern Gabriela Geselowitz contributed to this report. Geselowitz is also the co-editor of Koach-On-Campus, Koach’s online magazine.