Making It Matter

After USY, Ramah, and Koach, our committed young Jews often look elsewhere for meaning in their lives, worries RICHARD S. MOLINE

by Richard S. Moline

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Koach on Campus

In February I had the privilege of teaching at the Koach Kallah, the annual gathering of college students sponsored by United Synagogue’s college outreach department, under the superb direction of Rabbi Elyse Winick. The weekend, which included tremendously spirited singing and davening, serious study, and wonderful social activities, brought together some 150 students from more than 55 colleges and universities across North America. The kallah was held at Boston University and made possible primarily by the generous support of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

That’s the commercial (and a good one it is). Now to the tachlis – the real content.

It’s no secret that our movement is under siege, whether it’s from the press, some of our affiliates, or any number of other outside sources. Yet if you were to have walked into the room during any part of the weekend, you would wonder what the problem might be, or even if there was one. Granted, 150 college students is hardly a major sample, but the fervor and commitment they show for Conservative Judaism are nothing short of inspirational. So if things are so good, why are they so bad?

I taught a session Friday night called “What Makes Us Conservative Jews and Does It Really Matter?” We talked about ideology, relevance, and the facts on the ground. The session was packed, and while I hope it was instructive for the students, I know it was incredibly valuable to me.

We do a great job providing our young people with topnotch experiential Jewish education, whether in Kadima or USY, Camp Ramah, or other Jewish youth groups or camps. Many of our teens carry these experiences with them to the college campus, primarily at Hillel but also through informal gatherings with friends. Deeply moved by what they’ve experienced, they are primed to lead full Jewish lives.

And then they come home.

In fairness, it is difficult to replicate intense peer experiences outside camp, a youth group, or a college campus. On the other hand, when you have been part of a strong Shabbat community and suddenly find yourself in a place where no such community exists, especially on a peer level, it is extraordinarily frustrating. It can send a wrong message, which no one means to send. It can tell young people that the Shabbat that they have valued, the Shabbat experiences they have treasured throughout their time in USY, Ramah or on campus – forget it. The meaning they’ve been encouraged to give Shabbat – let it go. You’re out in the real world, we tell them, and the real world does not have time for Shabbat.

The result of this mixed message often is that people who have come to value a Shabbat community do find one, no matter what its ideology. The power and support of community often trump belief and practice (and such communities are not limited to right, center, or left).

I know people in their 20s who grew up in the Conservative movement but now go to modern Orthodox synagogues. I recently asked one of them why. Her answer was not a surprise. “It’s simple,” she said. “I went to the local Conservative synagogue twice. Both times, there were a lot of people in the sanctuary. Nobody took the time to talk to me and I left as I came – anonymously. The first time I went to the local Orthodox synagogue, I had an invitation to Shabbat lunch before we even got to Musaf.”

Quite a few of the students at the Koach kallah spoke about the disconnect between clergy and laity, between ideology and practice. “In my experience,” one student told me, “the rabbi is the only person who seems to care about what we stand for. Everybody else picks and chooses.”

What struck me most about these comments is that so many of these students feel a desperate need for validation. They want to be part of the movement, and I am convinced they are not alone. They are seeking a traditional egalitarian Judaism, where people are fully engaged in all aspects of Jewish life. Many find it in the scores of independent minyanim or chavurot that have emerged in recent years. Others create their own opportunities in neighborhoods across North America. Some of these enterprises are quite informal; they have no clergy and meet perhaps once a month on a Friday night. Others meet every Shabbat morning and include study and social service projects during the week.

Some people look at these enterprises as threats. One colleague has suggested that the proliferation of independent groups could mean the decline of the synagogue. Rather than view these creative and vibrant groups negatively, I would suggest we embrace them. Even though many of them don’t want to be labeled in this way, they represent one of the greatest successes of the Conservative movement in modern times. Our support does not mean that we diminish our existing kehillot; rather, it is the natural extension of Solomon Schechter’s notion of klal Yisrael, the community of Israel.

Of course, we have to work on making our own communities more welcoming (many do a wonderful job already), but we also must be realistic. Many kehillot simply don’t have the critical mass (do we say critical minyan?) to nurture and sustain a peer community for people in their 20s. But when we encourage the kehillot that do incubate young communities, we are laying the groundwork for revitalization, creativity, and spiritual growth. In doing so, we must understand that many of these groups will not want to carry a denominational label of any type. That, too, can be viewed as an opportunity; to see it as a threat is myopic at best.

The role and definition of the synagogue are changing. We must identify and support the communities of caring, committed, and passionate young Jews who will redefine our purpose and develop a traditional egalitarian Judaism that will bring meaning to their lives and the lives of the generations that will follow.

The college students who gathered in Boston for the Koach kallah, thanks to Women’s League, sent us a strong message. They are committed to our future, but they are not sure whether we are committed to them. We have to listen to them carefully or we will be left behind in the dust.

Richard S. Moline is United Synagogue’s chief outreach officer.