Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Is there Conservative Judaism on Campus? A view from the trenches

Here's my recent post to the Shma website about Conservative Judiasm on the college campus. My view is strongly based on what I have seen at the University of Michigan campus. I know that at other schools the culture is different but I think I am addressing a common problem that the Conservative Movement faces.

Is there Conservative Judaism on Campus?
A view from the trenches

By Rabbi Jason Miller

As a college junior, I spent much time and thought preparing my rabbinical school admission essays for the Jewish Theological Seminary. During this process I was intrigued by one particular question asking how I would allocate my time in the rabbinate. I explained how I felt that the college-age cohort was being neglected in the Conservative Movement and that I would spend much time focusing on this group and advocating on their behalf. When many college students leave for school in the fall, they also leave behind their relationship with their congregation. In the Conservative Movement, where so much is invested in these young people before college, it is a mistake not to nurture that commitment beyond high school.

While Koach on Campus, the United Synagogue's college outreach project, provides some important services for college students, I argued in that essay that if rabbis and synagogues did not make it a priority to improve their relationships with their congregants from the time they leave for college until the time they enroll their own children in the shul's nursery school, our Conservative Movement would be in grave trouble. I laid out ways that, as a pulpit rabbi, I would focus on college students beyond the traditional synagogue response of sending care packages on Chanukah and Pesach, and in some cases, making the annual rabbinic visit to campus.

When I wrote that essay a decade ago, I never suspected that my job in the rabbinate would be at the University of Michigan Hillel focusing on college undergrads, graduate students and young professionals on a full-time basis. I can now say with some professional credibility that this cohort is in fact being overlooked by the Conservative Movement in general and by their synagogues in particular.

There are congregations that recognize the importance of cultivating relationships with young people in their 20's and 30's once they graduate from college. These synagogues have initiated social events for singles, separate prayer services for young adults and networking groups for young professionals. While these programs are all beneficial, more must be done on campus before these young people graduate because it is on campus where Conservative Judaism is hurting the most. When I asked students at Michigan why the Conservative minyan's attendance had declined so drastically in recent years, I was told there was a certain stigma to the name "Conservative" among students. We quickly changed the name of this minyan to "Dor Chadash," but of course the name change does not solve the problem.

Young people in their late teens and twenties tend toward the extremes. Conservative Judaism prides itself on striking a balance somewhere between the extremes, harmonizing the Tradition with modernity. When an observant Conservative Jewish student arrives on campus as a freshman and avails herself of Hillel's kosher meal plan, maintains a Sabbath-observant lifestyle and is interested in a serious yet spiritual prayer community, she will eventually find herself drawn to the Orthodox community on campus. Students lament that the Conservative minyan lacks a strong sense of community.

One Conservative student at Michigan explained to me how the other students at Hillel's daily kosher meals could not figure out why they never saw him at the Orthodox services. He finally explained that he was a Conservative Jew who keeps kosher strictly. It is his commitment to egalitarianism, he told me, that keeps him in the Conservative community on campus. Yet he is in the minority as most active Jewish students who grew up committed to the values of Conservative Judaism eventually ignore these core values and gravitate toward the Orthodox minyan. These students were reared in the Conservative Movement at Solomon Schechter day schools, Camp Ramah and USY, and are often labeled by movement leaders as our "best and brightest" and most fit for future movement leadership. While the Conservative Movement should be proud of its success in fostering more people who are committed to living a Jewish life, we certainly do not want the college experience to contribute to a staggering loss of future Conservative Jewish leaders.

Much has to be done to address this challenge. More Conservative Movement role models are needed on campus to raise the energy and excitement about Conservative Judaism. All big campuses need Conservative movement liaisons to Koach who will help cultivate a strong Conservative community on campus with guest speakers, classes, and prayer services. Individual congregations as well as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should support Koach and help cover the cost of these liaisons. At Michigan, in addition to Chabad, there is an Orthodox institution with several outreach rabbis that actually pays students to attend classes throughout the week. The Orthodox Union runs a program called the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus that sends rabbinic couples to campus to create a "Torah community."

Synagogues must spend more time preparing their high school juniors and seniors to live a committed Conservative life when they get to campus. Further, pulpit rabbis should be encouraged to keep in touch with their college students by phone and e-mail. Some rabbis might consider using the latest technology, including blogging and podcasting, to maintain this
connection with their students. Rabbis and synagogues could also reach out to the colleges closest to them geographically in more ways than just offering complimentary tickets for High Holy Day services.

On college campuses where scholarship and progressivism are privileged, one would think that Conservative Judaism would be the popular choice among Jewish students, especially those who grew up in the movement. There is much in Conservative Judaism to be excited about. Let us begin to market that message to the most important age demographic. Our Conservative Movement's future greatly depends upon it.

Jason A. Miller, a Conservative rabbi ordained by JTS, is associate director of University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. He also is a rabbi-in-residence at Camp Ramah in Canada.

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