News that the Conservative movement may suspend its college outreach program has inspired Rutgers Hillel to fast-track a fund-raising drive to establish a Conservative educator position.
The idea of a dedicated campus professional and programming was first conceived last fall when about two dozen Conservative rabbis from across the state met with Hillel staff members to brainstorm, said executive director Andrew Getraer.
The project took on new urgency after word broke last month that the budget committee of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will recommend that funding for its Koach college program be suspended.
USCJ’s governing board meets June 10 to reduce the organization’s deficit and mull the recommendation.
News of the possible suspension triggered an on-line petition drive, at savekoach.org, and angst at the 50 college campuses where Koach (rhymes with “go-Bach”) operates.
In New Jersey, there are Koach programs at Rutgers and Princeton universities.
“The hard realities of budget and finance have put the USCJ in a position where it needs to make some difficult decisions,” said Rich Moline, former director of Koach and now chief outreach officer of the USCJ.
He confirmed that the organization will consider a recommendation this Sunday that Koach “be put on hiatus until long-term and proper funding can be secured.”
USCJ provides $225,000 nationally to Koach, down from $750,000 a decade ago.
Getraer said the financial crunch affecting the Conservative movement “is indicative of the changes sweeping the traditional national Jewish institutions.”
“But we at Hillel feel this is shortsighted. The future of the American-Jewish community, including the Conservative movement, passes through college campuses…,” Getraer said. Time on campus is “the most important time in a young adult’s life in making decisions about their future. It is essential that the Jewish community engage our young folks at this critical time in their lives.”
That sentiment was echoed by Kim Syvarth, the immediate past cochair of Rutgers Koach.
While some Koach initiatives may not be meeting expectations, she said, that was not the case at Rutgers. The Rutgers group actually grew “a lot” in the last year and now has up to 100 active members who attend functions, including Shabbat lunches.
Rutgers was also one of six campuses that this year had a Koach intern, Juli Goodman. Rutgers Hillel received $1,000 in funding from USCJ for the intern as well as for a monthly lunch and learn program.
“The Conservative movement is aging, and not spending money for Koach could be the downfall of the Conservative movement,” said Syvarth, an incoming senior English and Jewish studies major from Brick. “It needs to create new leaders, and Koach is the perfect way to do that. The movement is not thinking strategically because without Koach there will be no Conservative movement in 15 years.”
Cranford resident Douglas Kandl, a junior at Pace University in New York and president of its Hillel, serves as the Koach representative on the campus.
“We’re trying to keep it alive and vibrant,” said Kandl, the driving force behind the savekoach.org initiative. He said the petition was on track to gather 500 signatures by press time.
Syvarth, who has signed the petition, vowed that regardless of the decision made nationally about Koach, the organization would continue at Rutgers.
Getraer said much of the year has been spent gaining consensus on what a Conservative outreach position and programming should entail. Hillel plans to kick off a drive to raise $150,000 this summer throughout the state’s Conservative community and expects to have the full-time position filled by the start of the 2013 school year.
There are approximately 2,000 Rutgers undergraduates who identity as Conservative, said Getraer.
He said the plan is to model the Conservative position after those that already exist at Rutgers Hillel for the Reform and Orthodox communities.
A Reform Outreach Initiative, staffed by Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, was established last year. Kesher, Reform’s college movement, was dropped by the Reform movement three years ago.
“We made the case with the Reform community that if there is going to be Reform Jewish life at Rutgers University there has to be an effort within their community,” said Getraer. “Now with a full-time rabbi on campus, they are engaging more students than ever before. We’d like to do the same with the Conservative community.”
The Jewish Standard contributed to this report.