The Conspiracy

A Call for Kesher

As I strolled through the streets of Morningside Heights, the humid air nearly suffocating me, one thing I noticed was the emptiness. Empty of students, empty of professors, empty of Jews. Where were all my comrades in religion? Home for the summer, undoubtedly, but this presented a sharp contrast to Barnard and Columbia during the school year. What some may not know is that these Jews are often Orthodox or Conservative in their religious outlooks. Where’s the Reform community?

One of the most distinctive aspects of Columbia is its Jewish presence. Because it’s located near the Upper West Side, which is very Jewish in its orientation and is home to Zabar’s, there’s bound to be a large Jewish population at the university. In addition, the quality of the university attracts a variety of students, Jews included. A few blocks up from Columbia is the Jewish Theological Seminary, which offers double degrees or joint programs with Barnard and Columbia. With the JTS cantorial and rabbinical schools nearby, as well, Morningside Heights is peppered with Jews, myself included.

With a Conservative seminary, the large Orthodox population at both schools, and the Upper West Side factors, we Reform Jews are largely outnumbered in Morningside Heights. Obviously, Columbia may be an exception to the rule: I do not know how the Jewish population is distributed at other campuses. At Hillel, the Orthodox and Conservative groups, Yavneh and Koach, respectively, are both much larger than the Reform group, Kesher. I have attended several Kesher services this past academic year and have enjoyed the company of like-minded students that appreciate the value of Judaism, but do not necessarily feel the need to incorporate every aspect of it into their lives.

There is a need to establish a stronger Reform presence in campuses across the country. Kesher has made great strides by offering Friday night services and occasional Shabbatons. For those of us who are outnumbered by those of stricter denominations, it can be intimidating to see such a small presence of Reform students on a campus. If, as David Wilensky blogged recently, funding for Kesher groups across the country has been slashed, then what can we Reform Jews do to make our voices heard?

One way is to get more members. At Columbia, it’s hard to recruit Reform Jews because, simply, there aren’t as many as there are students of other denominations. If we look around, though, I bet there are students willing to get involved in the Reform community, but have felt intimidated by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox and Conservative students. It is our job at campuses across the country to form a strong religious identity for Reform Jews, just as Orthodox and Conservative groups have done.

Let’s have Shabbatons. Let’s have bowling nights, meet-and-greets, and open our doors to Jews who don’t necessarily identify themselves with any denomination, but are curious about their heritage and the opportunities on campuses. Let’s also work with the other Jewish groups on campus, like the Orthodox and Conservative organizations, to encourage Jewish integration so students don’t feel intimidated by the other denominations’ sheer size. With the demise of funding for Reform Jewish campus communities, it’s in our hands to expand the Reform movement for college students. We provide an alternative way of thinking about Judaism that is valuable to the discussion of what it means to be Jewish.

As the fall semester looms in the distance, keep the idea of Kesher in the back of your mind. Let’s work towards not only creating a better Reform presence on campuses, but working towards providing a more accessible Jewish identity for anyone who wants to learn about their heritage.

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One Older Response to “A Call for Kesher”

  1. David A.M. Wilensky
    May 27, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    It’s statistically unlikely that there are fewer Reform Jews at Columbia than there are Jews of other identities. It’s also anecdotally likely that the Reform Jews got turned off by a more conservative (note the small c) Hillel and it’s thus harder to find them.

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