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Koach closes

Local students react to loss of Conservative movement’s program for college students

 
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When the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced last June that Koach — the Conservative movement’s 23-year-old college organization – would lose a substantial part of its funding, students around the country mobilized to save it. They thought they had.

It is not surprising, then, that those students involved in saveKoach.org, a petition movement to rescue the group, were both saddened and somewhat taken aback to learn that the umbrella group for Conservative college students now has been disbanded formally.

Last week, United Synagogue announced cost-cutting measures flowing from a significant budget shortfall. Among them was Koach’s discontinuation. Last year, it had been granted a temporary reprieve when the Conservative organization voted to provide it with $100,000 for fiscal year 2013, provided that its supporters could come up with an additional $130,000 by the end of December.

“If they don’t raise the funds by then, they don’t have the resources to be able to continue it,” United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, said at the time. In addition, Wernick said the organization’s board would work to develop a three- to five-year business plan for the organization.

Noting that the fundraising goals for 2013 had been met and a long-term plan had been created, last week’s announcement pointed out that “the fundraising requirements for moving the plan forward into the 2013-14 fiscal year and beyond have not yet been achieved. As a result, Koach as we have known it will come to a close on June 30, 2013.”

Douglas Kandl, a senior at Pace University and the driving force behind the petition drive, said, “The students truly hope that the various members of the Conservative movement will be able to work together to fulfill the various components of the long-term plan — but in the meantime, we will be moving forward regardless.”

Kandl, who was a student representative on Wernick’s committee to develop a long-term plan as well as one of four students on the committee awarding Koach grants to campuses, said he “got the feeling as the year went on that Koach would not be able to fulfill the 300k,” but was not informed officially until a few weeks ago.

He said he is particularly disappointed that Koach’s annual meeting — saved this year by the financial intervention of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, which raised some $35,000 for the event — will not take place next year.

“It had a huge impact,” Kandl said. “Students came from all over the country. Losing Koach will make it a lot harder to connect students to Conservative Judaism. It’s very disappointing and it’s a huge mistake for United Synagogue.

“They’ll regret this in the end, because I don’t see how they can do without a college program that helps to ensure strong continuity throughout a young Jewish individual’s life.”

Alyssa Blumenthal, a Queens College student who worked as a Koach intern and served as editor of the organization’s online magazine, said she published her final edition two weeks ago. She said that she and Kandl had worked hard to convince national United Synagogue leaders that Koach was growing increasingly vibrant.

“Koach has played a really special role for students in college — a time when you’re figuring things out,” Blumenthal said. “It’s a chance to be part of a community that’s not the synagogue you grew up in, surrounded by peers who are trying to work out their identities in the same way you are.”

She said she is disappointed not just by the group’s closing but by the way she feels college students have been treated by the national organization.

“It’s a battle I’ve been fighting since my freshman year,” she said, noting that she and Kandl both gave presentations and helped draft a strategic plan last September, after it was announced that the group would go on “hiatus.”

“We were in conversations about this, how they would be restructuring,” she said, but she was not included in discussions about what would happen once the initial fundraising goal had been met.

“What does hiatus mean? What are they doing between the end of June and next year to bring it back and ensure funding? I don’t feel that has been addressed with the students.

“There needs to be a conversation.”

This year, eight campuses had Koach interns, and Koach programs took place on some 50 campuses.

“We are the people who teach in junior congregations and Hebrew schools,” Blumenthal said. “We are advocates on campus and then we come home from college and become active in our shuls. We care passionately about Judaism in our own way.” Koach “has been a way for us to come together and meet people who share those same ideals and approaches to Judaism and to life. It’s a powerful force for us to come together Jewishly.”

That passion and involvement will continue, she said, though she is not quite sure how that will be achieved.

Blumenthal said that “while being part of United Synagogue has been important in our growth, and being connected to the rest of the movement is very important and beneficial, I don’t think we have been connected in the way we could have been. We weren’t treated as part of a network.”

Now, Blumenthal, Kandl, and other students are trying “to have our voices heard” by Conservative organizations and the wider public.

“We need to work through our best approach,” she said, adding that “five of us have been in dialogue regularly about what we see as being the most important steps in moving forward.”

The group, under the name Masorti on Campus, issued a press release last week called “Moving Forward with Renewed Koach: Putting Student Leadership to the Test.”

According to the release, college campuses, “whether previously Koach affiliated or not, are strongly encouraged to host regional Shabbatonim and maintain existing Masorti/Traditional-Egalitarian communities.”

The statement noted that “the student leadership of Koach has decided to form an independent network of college campuses, in order to stave off the void left without the previous organizational structure…. Using the established communities as a jumping off point, this new Masorti /Traditional-Egalitarian Jewish campus network will be working to develop a student run national Shabbaton. Unlike Koach’s signature annual Kallah Shabbaton, a new model will be used where students will host other students and a university’s Jewish life organization will help to coordinate.“ According to the release, “a number of universities and colleges in the Northeast have already expressed interest in hosting.”

Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a Koach member at the University of Hartford, said he knew Koach “had been on United Synagogue’s chopping block for a while,” but he only learned of the organization’s final decision from its official letter.

“The only surprise was that all of our efforts to save Koach, through re-engineering and fundraising, had been for nought,” he said. “The letter outlines the same plan Rabbi Wernick had spoken about at the Koach Kallah this past February. As far as [the] letter goes, we as students do not see any future prospects for United Synagogue’s on campus.”

Leiderman lamented the group’s end, noting that “today, across North America, the current campus environment is generally a polarized one. When college students meet new people with different Jewish upbringings for the first time, they often feel overwhelmed, and often have a hard time finding a middle ground for pluralism.

“Orthodox groups have done an outstanding job of establishing themselves as centers for Jewish campus life, outside of Hillel,” Leiderman said. “Hillel often becomes a place of compromise, without actually taking a stand. Koach provided the perfect middle ground,” standing for both love of Torah and equality.

Leiderman said that as soon as they received Wernick’s email, he and several other students and Koach alumni “jumped into action. Together, this group of eight rebranded the ‘Save Koach’ Facebook page into one for our new movement.

“It is our hope that a new network can be forged to maintain idea sharing, along with regaining the status and credibility lost without a large organizational backing,” he said. “We encourage campus communities to keep doing what they have been doing, filling the need for Jewish pluralism in a polarized world.”

Raffi Mark, who recently graduated from Rutgers University, was associated with Koach throughout his college years. The group was served by both a student intern and a rabbinic intern from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Operating through Hillel, the Conservative student group held services every Friday night and Saturday morning, sponsored monthly or bimonthly programs as well as social events, and engaged in community service.

“We were very active,” he said.

Mark — whose father, Rabbi Randall Mark, is the religious leader of Wayne’s Shomrei Torah, and whose mother, Dassy Mark, is director of USY’s central New Jersey region — said he was “surprised but not utterly shocked” by the Koach closure. The student said he understands that the national organization “is trying to figure out ways to balance the United Synagogue budget.”

Still, he said, “no one wanted to see there be nothing. I’m hopeful this will lead to rethinking and a new vision for Conservative involvement on campus.”

Mark said that even with a national umbrella group, “I know Koach at Rutgers will continue. Just because there is no national [group] doesn’t mean students won’t be involved.” While the Rutgers chapter, without national funding, will lose its student intern, he said, it still will have its JTS rabbinic intern.

In addition, “a lot of our programming budget came from the university, and we do a lot of fundraising to make sure we can have whatever programs we need. National funding was only a part of the way our [group] functions.”

Mark said he thinks United Synagogue and the Conservative movement have to figure out “how to reach into the college demographic, because it’s the first time students are making choices about their Judaism.”

He hopes that just as the Rutgers Koach group has been trying to become self-sufficient, other communities can help turn things around, “campus by campus.”

Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director of the Rutgers Hillel, agrees with Mark that the Conservative community on the Rutgers campus is well-supported “and will continue to thrive as it has. There will be an impact,” she said, citing the loss of the programming funds associated with the Koach student intern, “but we will continue the programs we already have.”

Reed said that both she — a Conservative rabbi — and the JTS rabbinic intern serve as resources to Conservative students on campus. The intern comes to campus one Shabbat each month and once during each week to “study, run classes, and talk about students’ personal development.” That has been independent of the Koach program.

Reed said that although she does not believe that United Synagogue is “intentionally abandoning college students, I can understand how the students feel abandoned by [Koach] closing.”

Still, she said, other branches of the movement will continue to work with college students.

“Many Rabbinical Assembly members work on college campuses, some full-time, and the RA is dedicated to providing resources for those on campus,” she said. She also noted that the National Ramah Commission is trying to support college students who work at Ramah during the summer while attending college during the school year.

Reed said that while she is sad about Koach, she does not worry about her campus.

“But on a small campus, which is not as well-served because they don’t have the population to sustain a full-fledged Hillel, those individual students will feel the loss,” she said.

 
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