The words of prayer that we say upon entering a synagogue were paradoxically first uttered by a pagan clairvoyant magician who later seduced the Israelites into idolatry. Balaam the prophet stood on a mountain top, ostensibly to curse the Jewish people, at the behest of the Moabite king, Balak, who had hired him for that purpose. Balaam instead chanted the poetic line that Jews everywhere associate with their sacred spaces: Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov//Mishkenotekha Yisrael. “How good are your tents, O Jacob; (How good are) your dwellings, O Israel.”
In their creatively ahistorical fashion, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined Balaam gazing upon and reciting this song of glory to the “tents of Torah,” or Torah study academies, and “the dwellings of God’s sanctuary,” or synagogues in the Israelite desert encampment. They founded or significantly developed these two critical institutions of Jewish life, and they repeatedly emphasized both as indispensable for Jewish survival. For them it was likely unthinkable that Torah study and prayer as they knew them were merely evolved aspects of Judaism: how could Moses and the children of Israel not have engaged in such important aspects of religious life? Thus, their interpretation of Balaam’s song of praise that read their best practices and institutions back onto that more ancient time.
Those of us who are committed to Jewish religion as the most meaningful element of Jewish experience could not agree more with our rabbinic ancestors. Torah study and prayer, especially in a communal context, are a large part of what being Jewish is all about, and even Jewish secular culture owes some of its core values to these foundations. The denomination of Conservative Judaism in which I proudly participate places tremendous emphasis on Jewish religious education and sacred community, especially for our younger members. That is why last week’s news about the de-funding of KOACH, (“strength” in Hebrew) the Conservative movement’s college campus outreach program, was so disturbing.
KOACH was founded in 1990. Its mission is to promote college students’ connections and commitments to the Conservative vision of Jewish life and practice, through a variety of supportive religious, educational and social action programs. According to JTA and Times of Israel reports, it currently serves twenty five North American college campuses and roughly three thousand students. Its website advertises a fine staff and many fine services that it has provided to Jewish students. Nearly all of them will be shut down – “deferred”, according to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its funder – on June 30, the casualty of persistent budget gaps and fundraising shortfalls at USCJ. Fortunately, its campus internship will continue in some form, in partnership with International Hillel, and a KOACH sponsored Birthright trip for students with Asperger’s Syndrome will continue as well. Otherwise, KOACH will suffer a quiet, tragic death which further challenges the viability of Conservative Judaism. Modeled after successful campus outreach philosophies that fuel Hillel, Campus Chabad, and Aish Ha-Torah, KOACH will now have no chance to sustain vital connections to young Jews as they make critical choices about their adult Jewish lives. They will likely go everywhere but Conservative synagogues as adults, or worse, they will go nowhere at all. Lacking more sane options, those people who get turned on religiously will gravitate toward variations on Jewish religion that look and feel good, but that are runaway trains of Jewish fundamentalism.
I am in no position to judge the arduous budgetary decisions that the USCJ leadership has been forced to make. They are doing the best they can under horrible economic and demographic circumstances, without a whole lot of prior substantive support from the rest of the Conservative movement, myself included, I am ashamed to say. Healing and rebuilding an institution in crisis is hard work, and I applaud the current leadership for its gradual success at improving one important Conservative Jewish institution. However, despite this not being our intent, the message this budget cut clearly sends to young people on college campuses is, “You are not our priority”. This is obviously not what a rapidly aging religious denomination needs college students to think.
For twenty three years, USCJ took almost sole responsibility for a vital “tent of Torah” endeavor that all along was the obligation of the entire Conservative community. For KOACH to work well in the future, it would need to employ the most cutting edge models of Jewish campus outreach as part of the larger structures provided successfully by Hillel. Yet before we plan that vision, we need to raise the necessary funds. Thus, here is my proposal:
If every Conservative rabbi raised or donated $1,000 over the next year, all 1680 of us would be able to raise $1.68 million to resurrect KOACH. More modest $500 donations would yield $804,000.
If every major Conservative movement institution contributed $5,000-$10,000 over the next year, we could likely raise another $100,000.
If even half of the estimated 7,000 Jewish family foundations in the United States each gave $1,000, we could likely raise another $3,500,000.
If even half of the Conservative synagogues each gave $1,000 we could likely raise another $325,000.
In the realm of individual donations, these amounts are modest and manageable, but their collective result might put KOACH back on the map as a viable religious option for contemporary Jewish life. What we now need is the collective will to make KOACH a reality once again. Tired Conservative cynics, wary post-denominational critics and triumphalist Orthodox ideologues alike will complain or chortle that Conservative Judaism is too irrelevant and burned out to get this done. I think it is imperative for the Conservative movement to disprove them.
I am willing to make a commitment to reviving KOACH in 5774, to begin turning a curse into a blessing.
Anyone care to join me?