Students Reignite Conservative Flame

by Liat Deener-Chodirker, Katie Hamelburg, Aryeh Kalender, Ilan Layman, and Danielle Leopold

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In the fall of 2013, Hillel staff at the University of Maryland brought together a diverse group of students with a passion for Conservative Judaism. Some of us had been active with Conservative Judaism on campus, while others were newly involved. Together we brainstormed about the Jewish experiences we wanted to have while at Maryland. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of Conservative Judaism’s former campus program, Koach, the kind of identity we wanted to forge, and the values we wanted our community to embody. Over the next few months, we held focus groups to discuss our long-term goals and vision for this community.

We came out of this process excited and hopeful, and we believed that to convey those feelings to our peers, our group needed a new name, a clear identity, and innovative methods. Knowing the challenges that lay ahead as a new student group with connections to an evolving movement – we chose the name Ometz, meaning courage.

Of course, successful community building is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. But we would like to share some of what we’ve learned over the past year and the key principles underpinning this new organization.

Open Leadership

We believe the best way to build community is for everyone to feel personally invested in, and responsible for, the community. Ometz provides as many ways as possible for people to get involved. Rather than working from a traditional board model, we focus on community involvement in planning and leading programming. Our student coordinators and community members work together to create positive, fun and high-quality Jewish experiences. We hold bi-weekly meetings that serve as an open forum for anyone to provide feedback and collaborate.

Clear Identity

Ometz is centered around three core pillars of community: prayer, learning and social events. This is the foundation of who we are, and every action we take stems from this core. While it’s essential to adapt to the needs of our community, we believe that any adaptation must remain true to our identity. Simply put, we are an egalitarian Conservative community, respecting Jewish tradition and law, while simultaneously striving to create a welcoming and accepting environment for students from all backgrounds.

The Greater UMD Jewish Community Ours is a thriving Hillel filled with passionate religious, educational and cultural groups. We frequently co-sponsor events with students involved in other Hillel groups, clubs or fellowships. We are grateful to be at a university with thousands of Jewish students, many of whom come from Conservative backgrounds. While some of these students come to Hillel seeking a religious experience, many do not, due to fear or discomfort. We reach out to both involved and uninvolved Jewish students to engage in conversation, make personal connections, and spark an interest in Ometz.

Our experience is not unique. There are many campuses where Conservative students come together to reinvigorate their communities. The task of creating a meaningful college religious experience for alumni of Kadima, USY, Ramah, Schechter, or Nativ can be daunting. But we believe that when the immense passion within the Conservative community is channeled creatively, a vibrant and formative college Jewish experience can be created.

We are incredibly grateful to the members of Ometz and the Maryland Hillel staff for being a part of our growth. We are also grateful to all the donors whose support helped make Ometz possible: Hillel International, the National Ramah Commission, Howard and Jo Ann Wurzak through a grant to United Synagogue, and the many congregations, rabbis, and families who donated to Ometz programming.

The past semester has made us optimistic about the continued strength of Ometz and its potential to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism on college campuses. However, we must continuously rethink, reevaluate and adapt to remain relevant, exciting and engaging. We are confident that Ometz will persevere and thrive. We have faith in the community we have begun to build and are excited to see how it progresses, morphs and comes together.

Liat, Katie, Aryeh, Ilan, and Danielle were spring 2014 Ometz student coordinators. They can be reached at ometzumd@gmail.com, found on Facebook at “Ometz at UMD,” and viewed at ometzumd.wix.com/home.