I’ve been somewhat alienated from Reform practice for sometime, but for the first time the URJ has finally told me to go away.
Do we know that people in our society are most religiously vulnerable in college? Yes. Chabad knows it. Hillel knows it. Koach, the Conservative movement’s college program knows. (Although they may be in serious danger right now.)
And the URJ seemed to briefly grasp this simple notion. For several years, we had Kesher, the URJ’s college program.
Kesher was, for its entire existence, chaotically disorganized, underfunded and undermanned. It sponsored chronically under-attended college tracks at URJ biennials and similarly under-attended LTS–Leadership Training Seminar–events every year at a different college campus.
Last year, a sophomore in college, 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.
Kesher has always been different from campus to campus. At some schools a Kesher chairperson is on the Hillel board, along with Koach and Orthodox chairs. At others, Kesher exists once a week during a Reform-style erev Shabbat service. At still others, it is a small subset of Hillel, sponsoring events with Reform values within the larger Hillel. These differences were evident at LTS in the the complete inability of everyone to understand what everyone else needed from Kesher. The poor URJ staffer who made up the entire college department at the time, an old counselor of mine from my first summer at Kutz, seemed overworked, confused and defeated. His attempts to get us to figure out what we needed had resulted in a meeting which had devolved into a shouting match.
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.
We grew up at your camps, URJ. We grew up in NFTY where you taught us to be good little Reform teens and twenty-somethings. We grew up in your synagogues, your day schools. And then we graduate high school and you toss us out onto college campuses with no support.
Today, I saw this. It’s the website of something called the Kesher Constitutional Convention. This site is hosted with no support from the URJ on a free googlesite. It appeared in my gmail inbox with the following message from the final Kesher president, Aaron Cravez:
Last year at LTS in Montreal we worked hard to create the document of guiding principles and that document is now in the process of becoming an official constitution for the organization of KESHER. With the Union for Reform Judaism only providing very limited support, it is now more important than ever to come together to define KESHER’s identity.
Please join the KESHER Leadership Council at Indiana University in Bloomington, October 23-25, 2009 at the KESHER Constitutional Convention help define the organization designed to connect college students across the country.
At its best, this event could be a watershed moment, the creation of a true force on college campuses. My best guess, however is nowhere near that optimistic.
URJ, the message you’re sending is this: We can’t make money from you, so we’re not going to bother figuring out how to make this work.