URJ to college students: “Don’t let the door hit you in the way out”

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.

Goodbye, URJ.


49 responses to “URJ to college students: “Don’t let the door hit you in the way out”

  1. 1. You write, “The tiny event…was attended by only 30-some-odd Reform college students,” in the negative. Although attendance was low in comparison to the Hillel International Convention, the event last year had higher attendance than that of the KESHER Convention in Austin, TX, and this time, we were dealing with (a) an economic recession; (b) international travel; and (c) poor and often non-existent marketing. In the latter, we can certainly do better, but many of the factors that limited attendance were beyond our control.

    2. You write, “Mostly we yelled and got frustrated with each other,” when referring to the meeting that we had regarding the future of KESHER. Lest we be reminded of the yelling and screaming that occurs during the creation of several organizations that serve the betterment of humanity.

    Nevertheless, I am thrilled by your excitement for the upcoming event. I wish I could attend. Alas, the life of a ‘starving student.’

  2. Dear David,

    First of all, let me agree with you that the URJ’s (lack of) support for college students is short-sighted and sucks.

    Second of all, in the best tradition of the old and decrepit, let me tell you a story:

    Once upon a time, 1987 it was, the URJ’s Youth Department had an office called “Sambatyon”. As you probably know (or could google in a nanosecond), Sambatyon was the river that flowed with fire six days a week and was only passable on Shabbat – effectively marooning the Jews from the lost ten tribes of the Assyrian destruction on the other side. (I am not kidding. See – the URJ had a sense of humor once.) Sambatyon sent an invitation to Reform college students, inviting them to a first college delegation to the URJ Biennial in Chicago. I, a junior and co-founder of Reform Jewish Students at Yale, along with a healthy fifty or so college students from around the country attended. Once or twice, we had a shared program with the NFTY delegation, but mostly, we had a programs together. Toward the end, we, too, drafted a document of what we wanted in our own national organization. We wanted the resources of a NFTY, but without the (too) close connections of conclaves. We wanted the support and knowledge of other similar groups on other campuses, so each of us would not have to re-invent the wheel. We realized that the average Reform campus group had a lifespan of just over four years, and we wanted a structure that would help us maintain continuity.

    On the one hand, that you never saw the document that we wrote shows the effectiveness of our effort. On the other hand, Sambatyon soon became Kesher and did many of the things that we asked for in our manifesto.

    My father often talks about how NFTY used to span high school and college – and was run by college students.

    I offer some limited wisdom and greater support. Perhaps every generation needs to re-invent its Reform college structure – and the gift for all of us is that perhaps the process of creation generates leadership experience that brings new blood to our movement.

    The URJ cannot be seen to ignore college students.

    Even more than NFTY, it is a benefit that ties Reform congregations together through the hopes of its parents that their children will follow their practice.

    The URJ certainly cannot cede the BirthRight program to the ultra-Orthodox, the Orthodox, the Conservative and other Jewish organizations.

    Know that many lay and professional leaders throughout the movement – especially the clergy that you have met – will be supportive of what you do.

    Let me know what I can do to help.

    Chazak v’ameitz

    • Good to hear from you, Joel!

      What I do? Thanks for your words, but I don’t think it’s accurate anymore to call me a part of this whole. I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied for several years and this is the final nail in the coffin.

      Let Aaron know what you can do.

      • Dear David,

        That would be a loss for the (organized) Reform movement – as I pointed out to the head of its congregational organization in an e-mail this morning.

        I also called you an exemplary product of our movement. Selach li.


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  4. Although the URJ is no longer providing support for KESHER, I believe that it is wrong dismiss our existence as an “embarrassment.” KESHER continues to live through the students that participate in its local and national events. The fundamental problem with KESHER is NOT that it does not have support from the URJ, but rather is the fact that it has a confused identity. There is not a foundation that the organization can rest on. Although the timing is unfortunate, we absolutely need to come together, with or without URJ support and define KESHER’s identity. At this point, we need to show the college Jewish community that we are a legitimate organization that has been established for generations to come.

    Therefore, David, although I agree with your statements about the URJ no longer supporting KESHER, I would like to point out that KESHER continues to exist and that last year’s Leadership Training Seminar in Montreal was not only a great success in that it provided us with the first step to creating a constitution, but it will not by any means be the final LTS. The next few years are going to be difficult for KESHER, but rather than focus on our misfortunes we need to work together to (re)create KESHER for generations to come and that means that rather than simply complaining about lack of support from the URJ, we need to work on making KESHER the organization that it was intended to be. One that connects Reform Jews from around North America and provides them with resources on how to be active Reform Jews on campus. For these reasons KESHER is having a Constitutional Convention in Indiana and regardless of whether we have 50 people there or 20 we will be creating a foundation for the future of KESHER.

    • Rock on, Aaron. If anyone can do it, you just might be the guy to pull this together. I look forward to hearing about it.

      But my point is less about frustration with Kesher and I certainly didn’t mean that Kesher is embarrassing. I mean that the pittance of support from the URJ to Kesher should have embarrassed the URJ.

      The point is that, though I’m still a Reform Jew, I don’t think I can safely call myself a URJ Jew any more.

  5. Koach, the Conservative movement’s college program knows.

    I know that the grass always looks greener on the other side, but I can pretty much assure you from personal experience that – with a few notable campus exceptions – Koach is completely ineffectual as an outreach organization.

  6. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Koach was ever supposed to be an “outreach organization.” It was supposed to provide support to Conservative students putting on their own programming on their own campuses. I think Koach is somewhat more effective at achieving that goal, but it’s certainly worth arguing whether outreach might be a more appropriate goal for the organization.

    • “It was supposed to provide support to Conservative students putting on their own programming on their own campuses.”

      And I think that’s exactly what Kesher is supposed to be, if it can be said that it is “supposed” to be anything. But now, if Aaron can pull this off, it will be a peer support network, rather than a top-down sort of support. And maybe that will be better.

    • It was supposed to provide support to Conservative students putting on their own programming on their own campuses

      Debating semantics here. “Outreach” includes to those who should be your own, but happen to be away from home.

      And, it does not do that job well either. Last I checked (admittedly a long time ago), Koach was interested in one-time “creative” events, but has little structure for helping Conservative college students with follow-up or retaining interest.

  7. David, I wish I could say you were wrong, but you’re right. I have realized for some time that the Reform Movement as a movement doesn’t really address the needs of people between High School graduation and when their kids are born. My current congregation has a college committee and they are very successful at keeping in touch with all our college students throughout the school year, but that doesn’t fully fulfill our kids’ needs. How can we when we have kids at some many different campuses and we don’t have a presence on all the campuses?

    What’s the answer? What would you propose if you were the philosopher king? Is it simply a matter of funding? Aaron indicates that it’s also organizational.

    On an even more fundamental level, what is it that you need and want? What is it that you are looking for? What do you think most (and you personally aren’t most) college age kids want?

    If we can answer the fundamental questions, perhaps we can come up with a directions to move in.

    G’mar tov.

    • I’m not usually one to say, throw money at it, but in this case, the problem needs more money thrown at it.

      Large campuses need recent Reform college grads being paid to work as Kesher fellows or something. On small campuses, Kesher staff should work to find people to spearhead creation of Kesher chapters and they should receive visits from staffers or from a team of travelling fellows similar to the ones I mentioned that are needed on large campuses.

      And what to college students want? I don’t have a single clue. As you say, I’m not most college students.

  8. 1. URJ doesn’t “make money.” And they don’t cut programs because they can’t “make money” off them.

    URJ needs money and volunteers in order to operate. If adults want a program, they must help make the program “self-sustaining.” Kesherites, step up! Own your future!

    2. Staffed. Understaffed.
    Not “manned.” “undermanned.”

    Thank you!

    • I know that the URJ isn’t a business, but the URJ and Reform synagogues are still stuck in a fees-for-services customer service model. People are expected to pay money into the system and they get things out of it–services, classes, NFTY events, a summer at camp, whatever.

      “Self-sustaining?” Show me a successful URJ program that doesn’t have (or didn’t until the recent cuts have) someone in a URJ office being paid to work on that program.

      As you can see, Aaron and his team are stepping up. It’s a shame the Union won’t step up with them.

  9. Depending on what the objectives are (supporting college students’ activities? retaining Jews within the fold? increasing the ranks of X-denomination?), one can look to the more or less successful models of Chabad and Aish Hatorah. Or, look to the OU’s JLIC program. What they have in common is feet on the ground on campus.

  10. David
    I should really read your blog more. This was a fantastic piece. I feel like the URJ should be stronger with it’s college programs. But since when have you been a part of the URJ? Yeah, we did EIE, NFTY, and Kutz, but how much does that REALLY reflect the URJ? The ideas and practices they teach, are really not the same as those three places. It doesn’t even surprise me that Kesher has been dropped. If the URJ really cared about this, they would of done something about it sooner. Some people might say it’s the economy, but really URJ should be doing more with Kesher. The people who would be interested in that, are the future leaders of the URJ. In a sense they kind of kissed them away because of the lack of funding. That’s just my thoughts.

    • Someone I ran into yesterday pointed out to me that the URJ camps have been one of the Union’s most successful programs for a long time. Who staffs those?

      College students.

    • Yeah, we did EIE, NFTY, and Kutz, but how much does that REALLY reflect the URJ?

      This is a good point. Sadly, I don’t think that you would find much of a home at my congregation, warm and welcoming though we try to be. They would want you to teach Hebrew school, and of course you are welcome to sing in the choir, but don’t expect that you’ll find much part in any kind of worship outside of that.

      It’s a serious disconnect. The more Jewish knowledge you have, and the more empowered you feel to take an active part of the ritual life of the synagogue, the less you are likely to feel engaged by our synagogues.

      Perhaps the under-funding of college age programs will inadvertently help maintain this status-quo: the Jewishly-engaged college student will migrate to the non-denominational orgs, or to Chabad, and the not-so-Jewishly self-identified will drift off. If we’re lucky, the latter will come back after they have a non-Jewish significant other who is curious and they’ll take an Intro to Judaism class together. But then we’ll be safe in maintaining the consumer Judaism model of synagogue life.

  11. Controversy is good. Providing challenges is good. Calling things as you see them is good. Calling for institutional self-reflection is good. Reflecting on your own identity is good. Being an unheard voice is good. Representing an underrepresented group is good.

    And doing all this on the eve of Yom Kippur is not only good, but Jewish and appropriate.

    I would challenge you, however – given your interest, investment, and own insight into this issue – not to bail out entirely. It’s ok to decide the URJ doesn’t represent you anymore. That’s fine, you don’t have to affiliate. But stick around somewhere to see what comes of your own challenges to the URJ.

    Kol Hakavod, as always.

  12. Melissa Frey Goldman


    Thank you for sharing this important point of view. When I first saw your post, I immediately linked it to my Facebook page. As you know, I am not one to shy away from looking at every side of an issue. This past spring, I began my tenth year working for the URJ. I have seen firsthand the professionals in the youth programs department who have continued to look for ways to support all Reform Jews all along the age spectrum. College students are no exception.

    In an effort to make this a balanced conversation, I’d like to share some information that you do not present in your original piece. While there is no formal College Department, the URJ continues to support college students in many ways, including the following programs and projects:

    – Reform On Campus (ROC) grants for innovative programming from the Men of Reform Judaism
    – The KESHER College Program Fund
    – The URJ College Committee as part of the governance of the URJ North American Board
    – NFTY Alumni engagement, beginning with a gathering at the URJ Biennial in Toronto
    – Reduced rates for attendance at all URJ North American events
    – The annual College supplement in Reform Judaism Magazine
    – Congregational consultation regarding working with college students
    – Packing for College
    – The college section on http://www.urj.org/college
    – Senior Send-Off Shabbat
    – Taglit-Birthright Israel: URJ KESHER Trips
    – Reform Semester in Israel at the University of Haifa
    – Shnat Netzer, The Netzer Year
    – Kibbutz Lotan: Green Apprenticeship
    – Kibbutz Lotan: Peace, Justice and the Environment
    – Tikkun Olam: Tel Aviv-Jaffa
    – Machon Kaplan, through the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism
    – HUC-JIR College Colloquia
    – The Olim Fellowship, through our URJ camps
    – The Cornerstone Fellowship, through our URJ Camps
    – Off-season programs and opportunities for URJ Camp staff

    Though with diminished support and funding, KESHER continues on campuses and affords remarkable opportunities to students across North America and in Israel. Though I understand and share your disappointment regarding the lack of resources focused on college students and hope that, in the future, those resources increase, the URJ and the Reform movement continue to look for new and expanded ways to reach out to and connect with college students.

    Reform students on campus have not been abandoned by the URJ. Rather, those of us passionate about the cause continue to look for ways to enhance what we do have control over, rather than belaboring the things we do not. A healthy, open dialogue is certainly the first step in making that happen. Thank you for taking that first step.

    Melissa Frey Goldman

    • Melissa, it’s hard to figure out if you’re stopping by the blog as a friend or if it’s because someone at the URJ has finally got it in their heads that blogs have become a legitimate place to engage in dialog. Either way, glad you’re here.

      Reform On Campus (ROC).
      As you say, these are funded by the MRJ. So the URJ doesn’t have a say in use of these funds.

      The KESHER College Program Fund.
      I’m not sure what this is. I can’t seem to find it in a cursory search of the URJ website.

      NFTY Alumni engagement, beginning with a gathering at the URJ Biennial in Toronto.
      I’m eager to hear back from you after Biennial and find out how many NFTY college-aged alumni came.

      The annual College supplement in Reform Judaism Magazine.
      And of course we know this magazine to be widely read by college students?

      Congregational consultation regarding working with college students.
      Congregations are, by definition, where college students are not. Are you referring to counseling that convinced my synagogue at home to send sporadic holiday gift-boxes?

      Packing for College.
      This program is for people who are not in college, but are about to be.

      Senior Send-Off Shabbat.
      I’ve never heard of this program. What is it?

      Taglit-Birthright Israel: URJ KESHER Trips
      This is NOT funded by the URJ. To say that the URJ is doing me a service by taking free money from other organizations and using that funding to create a free program is not say that the URJ is doing anything for me. Free money is free money. Further, Birthright is, if anything, proof of what I’m saying here, which is that if you build a big, nice, free program, college students will no doubt come.

      Shnat Netzer, The Netzer Year
      Run by Netzer, not the URJ.

      Kibbutz Lotan: Green Apprenticeship
      Run by the IMPJ and Kibbutz Lotan, not the URJ.

      Kibbutz Lotan: Peace, Justice and the Environment
      See above.

      Machon Kaplan, through the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
      Run by the RAC, which is a URJ affiliate, but is not the URJ.

      HUC-JIR College Colloquia.
      Again, not run by the URJ.

      A full two of the above things are targeted at campuses. One of them is not run by the URJ and the other one I’ve never heard of.

      This list includes many great programs, but few of them are actually run by the URJ. Rather, they are run by reform organizations, many of which are affiliated with the URJ.

      We have to meet people where they are. College students are on college campuses. To present this list with little to say about programs that happen ON CAMPUSES, is a little odd.

      We know that groups like Chabad, with boots on the ground on campuses, are successful. The ROC grants you mentioned, the only on-campus program on this list that I’ve heard of, requires students to come to the MRJ and seek out funds. We need people seeking out Reform Jews on campuses.

      You say that Kesher continues with diminished funding and support. Rather, I’m suggesting that it continues only in places where there is existing momentum because there is NO funding or support anymore.

      The students we’re talking about will not come to you. You have to go to them.

      • Melissa Frey Goldman


        I always appreciate our healthy discourse and repartee, and have two thoughts to share.

        1. Please footnote your sources. The information I have differs significantly from what you’ve presented.

        2. Will you be joining your peers at the Constitutional Convention to help redefine and move KESHER forward? If so, I’ll be in Bloomington that weekend, and look forward to seeing you then.

        I recognize this response is short however I continue to stay entrenched in and enriched by the work and progress of NFTY, NFTY Alumni, Kutz Camp staffing and participant recruitment, and the overall goals and values of the Reform Movement.

        A sweet new year,

        • Melissa, I’m curious to know in which ways your information differs. Most of the stuff I said in my response to your comment was off the top of my head stuff that I just thought I knew to be the case. Please correct me where you think I’m wrong.

          I won’t be in Bloomington, but I hope to see you around NY sometime soon.

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  17. from what i heard from a member of the urj, that reform semester in israel doesn’t exist anymore. and yet it’s still listed all over the internet, which gave me the vague hope of actually having a reform jewish experience in the holy land.

    • intersting, anon. I had kind of heard that as well, which is particularly sad because the program is only a year or two old to begin with.

      • Do I get to do my duty as an inside source again? Anon, you’re correct, the Reform Semester in Israel program does not exist, but it is not “still listed all over the internet,” as you suggest. I don’t see it anywhere or any of the URJ’s official pages…

        I am happy to say, however, that your “vague hope of having a reform jewish experience in the holy land” has no need to be vague. The URJ and its Reform movement partner organizations offer a number of unique experiences from a Reform perspective in Israel for those in high school, college, and beyond. Please visit http://rjisrael.org/ for more information on this.

        Programs come and go. They’re based on whether or not people are actively interested in them. If there was a critical mass of people who were interested in going on an RSI-type program, it would have continued to be offered. Right now, there isn’t, so the focus has shifted. Sad? Sure – it would be great if there were more people interested. But we’re still the largest summer program operator, and we just had the largest class EVER on our EIE High School in Israel program. David, I’m sure that’s something you can share pride in.!

        • I can take pride in that. And thanks for being The Shuckle’s resident inside source, as always.

          But there’s a kind of flaw in the logic here.

          As noted, there’s a long traditional of an adequately-funded battery of interconnected URJ high school programs. NFTY sustains the summer programs, which sustain EIE, which helps sustain Kutz and so forth. They cross-promote each other and help each other. Each feeds more people into the others. So we should expect the critical mass there to continue to move the entire set of programs forward.

          RSI, however was a college program. And we’ve established pretty strongly here at The Shuckle, the URJ has a poor history of doing well with college programming.

          So, I would hold that if the URJ started up a new high school program, with all of the interconnected support from other high school programs that it would entail, and the new program still failed, then OK–it was a bad idea.

          However, to say, “Well, we started this new program for college students, but with minimal promotion of it, it failed pretty quickly,” is a different story. I never heard the program mentioned by anyone other than URJ employees, which means it wasn’t promoted properly.

          That’s why it failed, I would guess.

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  20. This is very interesting to me. I grew up in the Reform movement (6 years at OSRUI, 6 years of involvement with the then-very-robust Reform minyan at Harvard Hillel) and have a daughter who will be heading back to OSRUI for her 7th year this summer before entering her senior year of high school. She is interested in a gap year in Israel and I cannot find A SINGLE PERSON who can point me to a Netzer Year alum. I have contacted friends who are rabbis, education directors at large Reform congregations, even reached out to Jerry Kaye at OSRUI for leads. No luck.

    Similarly, we are trying to find her a college that will offer a Reform chavurah of some kind but can’t seem to get that information…Reform Judiasm magazine will tell us there are “Reform services on campus” but is this once a Purim? Or once a week?

    Now I’m seeing that this is not just me, it’s an institutional problem. More’s the pity.

    • I can point you to some folks in Shnat Netzer right now, if you want and a few alumni to.

      And as for Reform chavurot on campus, I know that UT Austin, McGill in Montreal and IU all have functional ones, though they take very different shapes.

      I’d also remind you that it’s possible to be a Reform Jew and go to services that are explicitly Reform services. That’s mostly how I live my life, in fact.

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  23. urj is just about the worst place anyone could want to work; wasteful spending, nasty attitudes, lots of selfishness.

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  25. I visit daily some sites and blogs to read content, however this blog offers quality
    based posts.

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