Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mahar Coalition Responds to revised USCJ plan

We applaud the USCJ strategic planning commission for taking the first step of hearing our voices and recognizing the importance of a presence on college campuses. We look forward to working with USCJ and other institutions of the movement to craft the best possible presence of Conservative Judaism on college campuses. USCJ has the unique opportunity to fill niches in the crowded landscape of Judaism on college campuses by focusing on serving students on small or remote campuses through national programming and by focusing on promoting the unique aspects of Conservative Judaism on more developed campuses. We are, however, more than just a bridge between the two other worthwhile audiences of high school students and young adults; funding and supporting college students is a worthwhile activity in its own right.
Other parts of the plan focus on how USCJ can better serve its member congregations. We have maintained from the beginning the desire to explore  how USCJ-funded college students can add value back into the system in the short term in addition to the future. College students are also kehillot that deserve support which is both a short- and long-term investment , and we look forward to working with USCJ and other movement institutions to craft that investment intelligently. 

Mahar recognizes and appreciates the changes that have been made to the USCJ's strategic plan, and we are committed to making sure these plans are seen to fruition. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Statement from the Mahar Coalition

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל-הָעָם, וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר

The Lord said to Moses: Go to the people, and make them holy today and tomorrow. (Exodus 19:10)

Mahar Coalition   מחר חברת 

The Mahar Coalition, a group of concerned alumni, participants and future participants in the USCJ’s KOACH program, advocates for a better, more effective and satisfactory alternative to the current restructuring of KOACH, as suggested in section 4 and 5 of the proposed USCJ Strategic Plan. We believe that the drastic cuts to the KOACH program lack nuance and are blunt, ineffective and counterproductive. We speak for ourselves and for current high school students who are unaware of these potential changes to their college experience. To our knowledge, no college-aged people were consulted in the initial strategic plan draft, so we would like to take this opportunity to share our thoughts.

We understand and appreciate that USCJ is moving towards a value-added model. As KOACH students, we want both to contribute and to benefit from this system in cost-effective ways that are based on the particularities of the college experience. We hope to find locally- based ways to contribute to the greater Conservative movement. We look forward to establishing fruitful partnerships with local synagogues to offer our services as mentors for high school students on issues of college admission and emerging Jewish adulthood, as volunteer tutors, or as collaborators on social action projects. So, potential partnerships between synagogues and campuses, while a way for college students to contribute to the system, by no means diminishes the need to invest in the future of Conservative Judaism on the college campus. It is very unlikely that students, who tend to live in their school’s “bubble”, will go off-campus on a regular basis for services or other events. Students supported today will yield leadership and participants for USCJ institutions, both on college campuses and in other communities, in the future.  

As soon-to-be young adults, we applaud and appreciate the increased effort in serving young adults. However, this effort does not warrant the reduction of college programming. As the Strategic Plan notes, “the North American Jewish community has made a much more substantial investment in Jewish life on the college campus than it has in the young adult post-college generation.” The college Judaism space is crowded precisely because it is so important. More than any other unifying activity, young Jews today go to college—almost 90% of them.  Students, at the cusp of their adult lives, explore their values and what kind of life they want to lead. College students are concentrated on campuses, and, free of professional and familial responsibilities, they have the time to commit to serious thinking, study, and community participation. Any Jewish community that wants a future must have a presence on college campuses.

We believe that KOACH has the potential to fill several significant voids in the College Jewish community. In recent years and decades, a variety of ultra-Orthodox "kiruv" organizations have sprung up on dozens of campuses nationwide. Typically, these types of organizations dispatch a rabbi and his family to a campus, with the goal of bringing Jewish college students closer to their brand of Judaism.

Through home-style hospitality, classes that they pay students to take, free trips to Israel and one on one time, these rabbis and rebbetzins sometimes succeed in convincing students that these rabbis represent "real" Judaism, that as they go through their lives, the student should turn to them for guidance, community and lifecycle matters—and not to the liberal communities in which they grew up.

Our fear is that because of this flourish of kiruv, the future of American Judaism will look quite like the emerging situation in Israel and Europe: a majority secular population that turns to ultra-Orthodox rabbis when in need of something Jewish. We are committed to making Conservative Judaism a viable option for the 21st century and any alternative to this outcome is simply unacceptable. But unless we act today to stand up for our values on college campuses, this will be where we are headed.

KOACH also has the potential to offer an alternative to the social programming and social action focus of some Hillels. People accustomed to the passionate prayer and learning of Conservative Judaism feel that their patterns of observance, especially on issues of prayer and egalitarianism are not supported within some of these Hillels.

But some campuses are devoid of any Jewish programming. Jews in colleges in rural areas or campuses without a significant population of Jews feel neglected and forgotten by the Jewish community or are only served sporadically and superficially. For these students, the only viable solution is a national, short-term convention program to inspire and minister to these students and equip them with leadership and religious skills to cultivate Conservative Jewish life on their campuses. The KOACH Kallah should be continued to fill this need and serve students on small campuses. For students from more developed campuses and others, the KOACH Kallah provides a unique opportunity to engage in advanced Jewish learning from a uniquely Conservative perspective.

We would like to see KOACH transformed along the lines of the new USCJ: an organization that provides resources, expertise, grants, and opportunities for learning and spiritual development. As with the rest of USCJ, we want KOACH to focus on building communities and broad-based participation, not only the leadership development of the elite.

With this in mind, we offer the following as one potential model for what a new KOACH might look like:
                  • Continue the grants program as seed money for Conservative Jewish programming on strong and developing campuses. Strict evaluation and following up will ensure money is well-spent. Interns and facilitators should be volunteer or only paid expenses.
                  • The Kallah should be used as a way to fill a deep void in serving students on small campuses with minimal Jewish infrastructure. This is the only such program in the country and has an opportunity to make deep impact with relatively small expenditure.
                  • The KOACH Shabbat program should continue but should be a designated Shabbat weekend with programming implemented and tweaked on a per-campus basis by the local students, with the option of hosting a visiting scholar at their own expense.

With limited and focused investments, the Mahar Coalition looks forward to a brighter tomorrow where KOACH fills the voids on the Jewish college scene by serving students, particularly those on small campuses, through national programming, contributing back to the local community through campus-synagogue partnerships and pooling the resources of our movement to do something that no one congregation can do alone. Groups of college students are no less a kehilla than an established synagogue and deserve the full support of USCJ to ensure a vigorous and vibrant future.