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Shma article

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.