The Conspiracy

RIP Kesher

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle

In September, I announced that I was officially a Reform Jew with no movement. I eventually worked on some definitions, to make this all a bit clearer. The impetus for this was the shortsighted decision of the Union for Reform Judaism to end all funding for college programming, killing Kesher. A new poll from one college student is asking why and what we can do to rebuild.

Kesher, the URJ’s already impotent, underfunded, understaffed answer to Koach and Chabad had all of its funding pulled last summer when the URJ realized it was up a financial creek. A few months prior, I had been at the pitifully attended annual Kesher Convention in Montreal. Here’s some of what I wrote about that event:

…I attended Kesher’s final LTS. Manned at the time by a single URJ employee and a confused, under-advised student board, Kesher was clearly struggling to figure out what it was.

The tiny event, held at McGill Hillel in Montreal, was attended by only 30-some-odd Reform college students. Social inbreeding was rampant. There were only six or seven people I didn’t already know. Four or five of them I had heard of or were very close friends of my close friends.

We spent the final full day of the long weekend spring break event crammed into one little room re-imagining Kesher. Mostly we yelled and got frustrated with each other. I was at times entertained and annoyed. Was this the support, the organization that the URJ wanted us to use to maintain Reform lives on college campuses across America?

[…]

I can’t recall what the outcome of that weekend was. Months later, the URJ re-organized. The college department disappeared. Kesher exists now only college campuses where Reform students meet under the Kesher name. It is an unfunded embarrassment to the Reform movement. We don’t generate income through synagogue dues, so the URJ has abandoned us.

I guess that’s a pretty serious charge in that last paragraph about synagogue dues, but it remains true. The URJ, despite being an allegedly benevolent non-profit entity, is run with the bottom line at the forefront. It’s not bad for a non-profit to be financially pragmatic but we generate all kinds of income for the URJ if we’re involved in high school. If our parents are synagogue members, they’re paying the URJ for us. If we’re members of NFTY, we–or, more likely, our parents–are paying for us there. We go on NFTY Summer in Israel trips.

In college, we don’t. And out parents don’t see our lack of involvement. Seeing that the URJ isn’t doing anything for us, our parents yank their money.

The economy was bad; the URJ reacted by restructuring. Part of that restructuring was canceling all funding to my religiously vulnerable demographic. But if the URJ is wondering why we don’t join their synagogues when we graduate, we’ll tell them that they didn’t care about us in college.

David Bloom, an old NFTY friend of mine, is wondering what to do. I got this email from him today:

As you might have heard, the poor economy recently forced the Union for Reform Judaism to cut all funding for KESHER, the campus program of the URJ.  As of now, the organization has ceased to exist as a North American body although many universities and colleges have groups of Reform Jewish students.

Earlier in the year, I came up with an idea: with the help of many past NFTYites, together, I thing we can reinvigorate the KESHER program.

Every senior at my school gets one week to pursue an interest of theirs. This week, I am taking a look at KESHER. Below, there is a hyperlink to a survey, containing questions for Reform Jews at universities and colleges. If you could please fill out the survey and forward it to ten other Reform college students or entering freshman, I would greatly appreciate it. Furthermore, if you are interested in helping out, please email me at bloom.david@insightbb.com.

Sincerely,
David Bloom

You can take David’s poll here.

There was an attempt last year to revive Kesher from the bottom up. The last student leader of Kesher, Aaron Cravez, organized a constitutional convention at Indiana University. It went nowhere, so we’ll see if this goes somewhere.

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13 Older Responses to “RIP Kesher”

  1. Joe
    May 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    This should come as a surprise to no one. The reform movement is losing all Jewish identity and will soon become RIP too. The average “reform” Jew is clueless on what it means to be a Jew and observes next to nothing.

    The basic problem is that Jews in America do not have Jewish values, they have secular values that at times happen to coincide with Judaism. They are not driven by a Jewish set of principles or values. Thus, there is no future for Judaism outside of those that actually practice and learn.

  2. Robin Margolis
    May 21, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Dear David:

    I am very sorry to see this. I hope Reform will reconsider this decision. It amounts to throwing away their seed corn. Where will future Reform leaders come from? Rabbinical students can’t do it all.

    Thanks again for your opinions.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net
    http://www.inclusivistjudaism.wordpress.com

  3. David A.M. Wilensky
    May 21, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Joe, get a clue. You can’t claim this about a movement that is become increasingly interested in a wider range of Jewish tradition. And, despite my beef with it, it’s still the largest denomination in the US and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, its international counterpart, is the fastest growing abroad.

    Robin, word. Unfortunately, there’s a sense in the Reform world that anyone who is more interested in their Judaism than most is davka gonna become a rabbi.

  4. Gary Hess
    May 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    david, I think Joe has more then a clue to what’s really going on. We all know that those numbers are fake and are all mostly non-jews who are marrying jews or have some bizarre conception as to what Judaism is all about.

    your reform ship is sinking. just because you try to fill the holes full of goyim won’t get the job done. its over, kesher is just the first to go.

  5. David A.M. Wilensky
    May 22, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    “We all know those numbers are wrong”? That’s a winning argument, Gary. Show me your data.

    The URJ is in decline, but that’s a structural issue. Liberal, but observant Judaism isn’t going anywhere. It’s just finding new, independent venues. And in the meantime, there are more synagogues affiliated with the URJ now than with anyone else.

    Check in with me again in ten years and we’ll see what happened.

  6. Clara
    May 24, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    There was a time when there was no Kesher – I was in college then. My NFTY counterparts and I stayed involved through Hillel or other Jewish student organizations. Some of my friends didn’t have anything to do with Jewish campus orgs yet they stayed involved as well by continuing to be Jewish camp counselors in the summer, teaching religious school at local congregations, etc. I, too, lament that the economy has forced the URJ to make this (among many) sacrifice, but there are plenty of ways to be involved both on and off campus – let your voice be heard in your Hillel or JSO!

  7. David A.M. Wilensky
    May 24, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    Clara, all fine points. However, many Hillels are run as though Conservative or Orthodox Judaism are the only game in town. In those situations Reform Jews with no support and no help getting organized may end up grinning and bearing it or they may leave Hillel.

    Some of those people are on career tracks that don’t allow them to spend summer at camp. When that isn’t the case, it’s still goofy to expect people to compartmentalize their Jewish life as a thing they only do in the summer.

    And for still others, they go to school in places where there is nothing Jewish to do except Hillel. I’m a big advocate of getting it your own way, creating your own group. However, that happens in rare cases when there’s one impassioned individual who makes it their project to start something. And without support, that’s still hard.

  8. Mimi Platt Zimmerman
    May 24, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    I am very saddened to hear about the lack of support for Reform Jews on college campuses and, particularly, in Hillels. I spent the majority of my Jewish communal service career as a Hillel professional attempting to create a safe and comfortable space for Reform Jews on campus (one with a very large Orthodox presence) which I believe we did. Unfortunately, it appears that without the right group of students or professional advocating for a Reform presence, it seems to disappear. I would encourage NFTY leaders to take the lead on campus and work with their Hillel professionals whenever possible to create something. I would be happy to talk with anyone about how we made it happen at U of Md. or just to lend an ear of support.

  9. Larry Kaufman
    May 25, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    I went to college before the parents of today’s college students were born, and just posted a piece that relates to this discussion at http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2010/05/the-bit-players-who-change-our.html. Although Jewish life is present today on many campuses where it was unheard of back then, I think one bit of wisdom can still be extracted from the lesson I was given when I was a high school senior: if doing Jewish is important to you, have the opportunities on the radar screen when you are choosing your college, rather than getting to campus and bemoaning its dearth.

    Meanwhile Joe and Gary are demonstrating that a college education is no safeguard against ignorance. Not only is the Reform ship not sinking, its influence and affluence plays a significant role in keeping the ritually-obsessed (and often ethically-challenged) streams afloat.

  10. Sergey Kadinsky
    May 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Is there still a need for Kesher? With the number of active Reform and Conservative students on campus is dwindling, why not consolidate and hold events together with Jews of other backgrounds? While it is true that Chabad does not recognize some Reform Jews as halachically Jewish, Hillel is non-denominational and could easily serve as a forum for non-Orthodox students to gather and hold events. Why are some Reform Jews so afraid of merging with Conservative Jews? Why do some Reform Jews loathe Chabad?

    When I attended college, my campus shaliach never said a bad word about Reform, and never forced his views on anyone. His events were attended by non-Jews, “half-Jews,” and Jews dating non-Jews. All partook of the kosher food, asked questions, and got along. Those who wanted to become Orthodox simply stayed after the event and spoke to the rabbi in more detail about tefilin, kashrut, etc. Those who were comfortable keeping Reform thanked Chabad for the event, and went on with their lives.

    See that wasn’t so difficult. Perhaps we can survive without Kesher.

  11. David A.M. Wilensky
    May 30, 2010 at 12:29 am #

    Sergey, what? Who said Conservative and Reform students are dwindling on campus?

    As far as consolidating and working with other groups, I worked for Limmud for three semesters. I’m all about non-inter-etc-denominational stuff. That stuff should supplement programming with those you agree with and vice versa.

    I don’t know where you get your nonsense, but Chabad recognizes Reform Jews as halachically Jewish if they’re Orthodox halachically Jewish. Practicing the form of Judaism that they believe is halachically correct is different from being halachically Jewish. For them, as for any Orthodox group, Judaism is passed on from mothers to their children, irrevocable by anyone.

    Sure we can survive without Kesher. The question is whether that Reform movement’s conscience is cool with letting shlichim with the goal of making non-Chabad Jews in Chabad Jews take care of our students instead of taking care of our own.

  12. justayid
    June 7, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    When I attended college, there was no Kesher. We had a Reform minyan in the larger Hillel. The Conservative Hillel rabbi was supportive of us and Reform Jews were active on the hillel board.

    I eventually became Conservative/Masorti, but years later for different reasons, and I continue to think that Reform Jewish activism is a good thing.

    I do not think we should rely on Chabad to take care of our students. I think Hillel is still the best approach, and I think voluntary C and R minyans within Hillel can be viable. I think on many issues and events Reform and Masorti students can do things jointly that are not general Hillel events, esp on heavily O campuses (Koach AFAIK is still funded, but there are many campuses where it is not active)

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