Supporters of the Conservative movement’s college organization, KOACH, have been trying for the last several years to convince the movement’s congregational organization, USCJ, to keep supporting it. It seems like this saga is finally over. USCJ has decided to shut down Koach. As Rabbi Elyse Winick, former Koach director, says, “To our great dismay, while there has been sufficient response to continue on a very small scale… KOACH as we have known and loved it must now come to an end.” For the last several years, USCJ has consistently said they didn’t want to run Koach. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much effort put into improving the quality of Koach or finding another source of support. It’s impressive Koach managed to stay around this long.
When USCJ put together their strategic plan in Winter 2011, the leaders of USCJ wanted to cut Koach. They said that they didn’t have funds to continue Koach, Koach wasn’t doing well under USCJ, and Koach didn’t really fit with the types of things UCSJ wanted to do. Koach students and alumni protested, and so USCJ kept funding Koach without seriously trying to improve the program. In June 2012, USCJ again tried to defund Koach. The reasoning was unchanged. After more protest, USCJ’s leaders said the protesters would need to personally fundraise to keep Koach alive for another year. The fundraisers got the necessary $100K and Koach survived for another year. Here we are in June 2013, and USCJ is once again saying that it doesn’t want to run the Conservative movement’s college campus programming.
While there is a lot to criticize about USCJ, I really can’t blame them for trying to close a program that they don’t have the interest, infrastructure, or money to run. The question is why others keep asking USCJ to be the savior of Conservative Judaism on college campuses?
As I’ve said before, Koach was modestly successful, at best. It existed on a small fraction of college campuses, only reached a small fraction of Jews on those campuses, and had few strong programs except an annual retreat attended by a few hundred students. Some students who participated became Conservative rabbis or Conservative leaders and considered Koach a key part of their development, but this wasn’t enough to keep Koach around. It was clearly up to Koach supporters to figure out what Conservative movement support of college students could be.
Koach supporters weren’t up to this challenge. They petitioned USCJ to fund Koach, but in the year after the first attempt to shut down Koach, there was little public discussion about what Conservative movement college outreach should be. After the second attempt to shutter Koach, there was a 6 month fundraising effort and a survey that only 137 current students in the entire nation bothered to answer. I’d link to the full survey results, but the savekoach.org site, where it was hosted, no longer exists. Soon after they hit their fundraising target, even the SaveKoach Twitter feed went dark.
So far I’ve seen two responses to the news that Koach is finally closing. In this press release, after expressing shock that USCJ decided to shut down Koach, the authors discuss the first actual steps necessary to build a new Conservative college network where key functions won’t depend as heavily on a centralized source of funding. Strangely, no individual or existing group put their name on it and no specific colleges are mentioned as participating in the effort. Separately, a Rutgers Hillel rabbi wrote that the short term work will be done campus-by-campus with local fundraising.
I haven’t been a college student for a number of years, but the events surrounding Koach interest me because they highlight an important weakness of the Conservative movement. Everyone within the movement agrees that Conservative support of college students is vital to the growth of the movement. Most people know that there was immense room for improvement in this area, Koach wasn’t doing enough, and had no realistic path towards doing the needed work. Because “college outreach” was deemed the job of USCJ, other Conservative organizations didn’t actively try to find other ways to support Jewish college students. When USCJ suggested that they couldn’t keep supporting Koach, these other institutions acted as if USCJ and Koach would suddenly start functioning with effectiveness they’d never had before. If others step forward to work on Conservative college student support now, this is a good thing, but it would have been even better if it happened before the last two years of Koach’s struggles. The same story keeps happening with various Conservative organizations. Innovation is avoided if it might create competition or overlap between the roles of various organizations.
I truly hope that the decline of Koach helps motivate the building of more support structures for observant and egalitarian Judaism on college campuses. I’ve given some of my own ideas of what this might look like in my earlier posts on Koach and hope for the best.