I recently wrote about USCJ’s proposal to defund their college student program, KOACH. As typical for USCJ, this plan was made without much public discussion. Even after the proposal became public, the only formal USCJ response was essentially: We wanted to make this decision behind closed doors, but someone leaked our discussion to the press. We appreciate the public discussion this has generated and, in the future, hope do a better job keeping more of our discussions regarding Koach behind closed doors.
Also as expected, people who support Koach protested. Also as typical for USCJ, their board decided it was easier to vote against the plan and continue funding Koach this year rather than make a difficult and unpopular decision. The press release says that the USCJ board decided to provide $100K of funding to keep Koach operational through December & have Koach supporters directly raise another $130K to complete the year’s funding. After Koach’s supporters take a deep breath, it’s time to decide what’s next.
When the last attempt to close Koach failed in March 2011, USCJ committed to thinking how to improve their support of Conservative college students. Since then, there’s been no public discussion or programmatic innovations from USCJ and then this second attempt to defund Koach. USCJ is again committing to thinking about college students and to work on a 3-5 year business plan for Koach, but, given that (1) long-term planning for their programs is already a core purpose of USCJ, and (2) this doesn’t seem very different from the commitment to rethinking college outreach only a year ago, I see no reason to assume this year will be different. USCJ CEO Rabbi Wernick even described defunding Koach for an entire year (which, I assume, would include firing or reassigning all Koach staff), as merely a “summer hiatus,” with no serious explanation of how USCJ would reopen a staffless & student-less program. This suggests that engaging college students is a low priority for USCJ. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sum of a USCJ designed business plan is to give $50K next year and ask Koach supporters to fund-raise $180K and give nothing the following year & ask Koach to raise $230K.
But who will spearhead efforts to put more priority on engaging college students? The Koach supporters who returned Koach to the USCJ strategic plan dispersed after that success and the recent pro Koach press release is more focused on fundraising than ideas.
Is Koach even the institution the Conservative movement needs for college student outreach? As commentators on this site have noted, Koach is a modestly successful program at best and isn’t essential for Conservative life on many campuses. It’s reasonably cost effective at around $77 for each of the 3000 students it reaches each year. I was a student at two universities–one with no Koach chapter, but Conservative services on Shabbat that were part of a healthy multi-denominational community, and a second with a Koach chapter, that seemed to mean little more than that Conservative Shabbat services were called “Koach services”.
I realize that many of the people who signed the ‘save Koach’ petition are leaders in the Conservative movement who were influenced by Koach. Still, Koach doesn’t have a far reach even on the 25 campuses with chapters. Inreach and outreach to the relatively few students who attend retreats each year is probably worth the modest cost. Losing Koach & the people it currently benefits would definitely be bad for the Conservative movement. But “Let’s not make things worse,” is hardly a good long-term vision for USCJ or Koach.
I’ve heard some people say, that we can’t expect much from Koach for $230K per year, but I haven’t heard what we would expect from a million dollar or even larger Koach. For those of you who were pushing to save Koach, now what? Where is Koach spending its money well? What could it do better with or without a modest increase in funds? The Save Koach FAQ lists a few things that Koach does, but not why these are part of Koach, or why Koach is the right organization to do them.
What could make Koach an actually indispensable organization? How can it better engage volunteers, other Jewish professionals near colleges, and become more relevant for students? For those not connected to the Conservative movement, how could a national organization with a goal of supporting egalitarian observant Jewish life have improved your college experience? Why should the broader Jewish community and potential donors care about Koach?