Reform Jews on campus: Unsupported by the Reform Movement

Crossposted to the New Voices blog

In September, I announced that I was officially a Reform Jew with no movement. Henceforth, I proclaimed that I would be a Reform Jew, but not a member of the Reform movement. I eventually worked on some definitions, to make this all a bit clearer. The impetus for this, the last straw really, was the shortsighted decision of the Union for Reform Judaism to end all funding for college programming, effectively 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 I think it remains true. The URJ, despite being an allegedly benevolent non-profit entity, is run with the bottom line at the forefront. Which is not to say that it’s bad for a non-profit to be financially pragmatic. It is to say that, when we’re in high school, we generate all kinds of income for the URJ if we’re involved. 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 to for us there. We go on NFTY Summer in Israel trips that cost plenty. In short, we generate revenue.

In college, we don’t. And, far from our parents, they don’t see our lack of involvement. Not seeing that the URJ isn’t doing anything for us, our parents to yank their money from the URJ.

The economy was bad. The URJ reacted, rightly so, by restructuring. Part of that restructuring was canceling all funding to my religiously vulnerable demographic. It’s as simple as that. If the URJ is wondering where we go after college, why we don’t join their synagogues when we graduate, among the many valid answers they will find, they’ll find that they let us know in no uncertain terms that they didn’t care about us in college.

David Bloom, an old NFTY friend of mine is wondering why and 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

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. Last I heard, it hadn’t gone anywhere. So we’ll see if this goes somewhere.


37 responses to “Reform Jews on campus: Unsupported by the Reform Movement

  1. >>>If the URJ is wondering where we go after college, why we don’t join their synagogues when we graduate, among the many valid answers they will find, they’ll find that they let us know in no uncertain terms that they didn’t care about us in college<<<

    That's a shame, because in my experience, many in your age group really are looking for what the Reform movement has to offer even if they don't realize it. But don't get too dramatic here. People come back to synagogues around the time they have kids. Unless you plan on stopping them from doing that, then I don't think they have much to worry about. Synagogues are just kind of set up that way. People your age probably do better in independent minyanim anyway.

    Anyway, I'm not so concerned about the URJ itself. I *am* worried about the fact that there's not a strong, organized Reform perspective on campuses. Hopefully that does go somewhere.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    As you know, I don’t speak for the URJ, but it’s an organization in which I am deeply involved and of which I am supportive — and I think your appraisal of what happened is reasonably fair, although I don’t agree with your “bottom line” analysis of why it happened — i.e,, because college youth does not generate income for the Union. In any situation where triage is called for, hard decisions have to be made about whom to save first, in this world of infinite needs and limited resources.

    I don’t know your friend David Bloom, but I applaud him for his initiative in generating this survey, and I hope he will share the results with the Union and continue his efforts to reestablish a kesher between the Union and Kesher.

    I have had my hand slapped when I suggested, as does Jon, that the “lost generation” will come back to the temple when it has kids to educate. (I don’t think I’ve ever blind-sided myself into thinking that independent minyanim are a “righter” place for post-collegiates than synagogues, although they may provide a more hospitable environment and a better peer experience.)

    As I probably have said before, I think independent minyanim represent both a success and a failure for the movements and the institutional synagogue. But as I see the role of the Union, vis a vis the post-collegiate demographic, it is not to serve that demographic but to guide and support its member congregations in how to do so. Ken yehi ratzon.

  3. “Don’t worry–People come back to synagogues around the time they have kids. It’s OK.”
    That this statement is so widely accepted is an indictment of the shallow irrelevance of Reform Judaism except in a pediatric sense, the religious equivalent of Chuck-E Cheese. No normal adult would go unless accompanied by a child. That is what is being said here.

    It speaks volumes about how the role of the synagogue is viewed–that despite the lipservice given to lifelong learning and community creation, what is expected is a place to have a bar mitzvah and assuage guilt about lessening Jewish continuity.

    • It’s also just not true.

      The evidence does not support that people who are perfectly happy with indie minyanim or chavurot will feel the need to subject their children to a Jewish communal model that they have rejected for themselves.

  4. I don’t disagree with your main thrust, but I do want to point out a couple of things.

    You state: “It is to say that, when we’re in high school, we generate all kinds of income for the URJ if we’re involved. 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 to for us there. We go on NFTY Summer in Israel trips that cost plenty. In short, we generate revenue.”

    Yes, you generate revenue, but I would also like to point out that you generate expenses as well. I have yet to see youth programming that is not subsidized, though I cannot speak about the NFTY Summer in Israel program since I’ve never seen one of their budgets. I would suspect, however, that it too requires some kind of subsidy. I don’t begrudge the subsidy, because it’s not about generating profits, it’s about doing what’s good for our People. Also you say “if our parents are synagogue members…” and that’s a mighty big if as compared to the numbers of Reform Jews who are on campus. It is just truth that many families decide to de-affiliate when their youngest child enters college – or sometimes becomes bar/bat mitzvah. [Of course the reason for de-affiliating is a whole other topic that really should be addressed as well though you and Randi begin to address it.]

    Larry Kaufman is right when he states that it’s a matter of triage and sometimes worthy things get cut when you just can’t do everything. I know that our congregation is trying to step up our outreach to our congregants who are in college and recent grads who are on their own, but whom we consider still to be part of the community, even if they aren’t dues paying members. But that’s a decision that we’ve made to invest time and funding into it.

    Similarly, the rabbis on Long Island are getting together to reinvigorate LIFTY even though it cannot be supported financial by the URJ as it once was. The point is, congregations are attempting to step in and do what they can in places where the URJ doesn’t have the resources anymore.

    Ultimately, however, reaching out to Reform Jews on college campuses isn’t something that individual congregations can really do on their own. It is ideally suited to the pooling of resources through the URJ and I wish that finances were different such that the URJ didn’t find itself in a Morton’s Fork. [I was going to write Hobson’s Choice, but according to Wikipedia, Morton’s Fork is actually the correct reference and every one knows that if it’s in Wikipedia, it’s got to be true.]

    You’re right. We should be supporting our congregants when they are in college and after they graduate. But where does the money and person-hours come from to do that?

    • The money comes from budgeting the existing money differently. HUC, which is heavily subsidized by the Union, just doesn’t need so damn many campuses. I’m sure there are other places money could be taken from.

      And as for LIFTY, why? NFTY-LI ceased to exist when NFTY realized that LI, WooF and NYC couldn’t exist and sustain themselves as three separate regions.

      • Yeah, good luck closing a campus, even if that is the economically rational thing to do.

        You’re right. The money could be taken from somewhere else. That is the essence of triage — you take from one and give to another. Basically, what you’re saying is that you don’t like the priorities of where they are placing the money. Okay, fair enough.

        Please tell me then what the URJ’s number one priority should be and make a list on down. Then you can fund everything on the list on down until you run out of money. Everything below goes goodbye. But you have to do that rather than simply say, “I’m sure there are other places money could be taken from.”

        The three NY area regions were merged when they ran out of money, but it doesn’t address the needs of Long Island youth groups. That’s why we’re trying to do something about it.

      • Larry Kaufman

        First of all, HUC is not subsidized by the Union. HUC is subsidized by Union congregations through the MUM dues program (Maintenance of Union Membership). By agreement with the College-Institute, the Union takes a small administrative fee off the top, and then funds are divided fifty-fifty.

        Since I am not involved in HUC governance, I haven’t been privy to the analyses of costs relative to consolidation of campuses — but I know they have been analyzed and that the verdict has been that closing any one of the four would would be deleterious to the institution as a whole.

        There are, however, potential savings to be realized by consolidating New York administrative headquarters for the Union, the College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis — and that is likely to happen.

  5. Larry Kaufman

    Rabbi Sternman says, “Ultimately, however, reaching out to Reform Jews on college campuses isn’t something that individual congregations can really do on their own.”

    As a member of a congregation in a college town, I’m not at all sure I agree with that statement — we have a regular influx, for example, of students from Northwestern who are doing field work for their religion courses — but, what I think is more to the point, college students are more interested in their peer communities than they are in a multi-generational setting, so that congregational outreach will, to mix a metaphor, fall on deaf ears. (I believe that Northwestern Hillel has liberal Friday night services; its Shabbat morning service is Orthodox.)

    When I was a college student, at an urban campus, Hillel was the center of Jewish life, and its Shabbat and Holy Day services were Conservative. However, Hillel also provided tickets for HHD services to the neighboring Orthodox synagogue or to any of the three neighboring Reform synagogues. Today, I believe, Hillel offers minyanim for all three of the major streams, but what other denominational support it offers, I know not. (I am speaking of one particular Hillel, not of the system as a whole. And that Hillel is right around the corner from the Chabad House on that campus.) The Orthodox shul where I davened one Rosh Hashanah is long gone; of the three big Reform temples, one has moved and two have merged, but I’m sure that students who don’t want Hillel or Chabad could be part of the remaining Reform congregation, or the nearby Conservative congregation — I just doubt that many do.

    I know there has been conversation in the collegiate J-blogosphere about the inadequacies of Hillel — but as an outsider, it would seem sensible to me for the movements to help Hillel provide multi-denominational programming, rather than to overlay a duplicative structure.

    • “it would seem sensible to me for the movements to help Hillel provide multi-denominational programming, rather than to overlay a duplicative structure.”

      Yeah, mostly. There are still going to be those who won’t go because it’s Hillel. Just because. My experience with Hillel services both at Drew and at other schools has been overwhelmingly stale. Not sure why, but they tend to mirror a shul-y aesthetic.

      So some college students will skip Hillel and go straight for the indie minyan if there’s one available. That’s what I do, anyway…

    • Just to be clear, I meant congregations in general, not congregations that happen to be in college towns. In Austin we opened our congregation to UT students and several joined us, especially for the HHD’s. However, here in Port Washington, we can’t just go visit all of our college students because they are spread too far and wide. We send care packages for all the holidays, but it’s not quite what David is looking for (I think).

  6. Larry Kaufman

    I’m not convinced the issue is “just because it’s Hillel,” or “a shul-y aesthetic.” The key word is indie — this generation seeks the empowerment of doing it for itself, while earlier generations sought the empowerment of hiring others to do it for them.

    I get the feeling that what you (that’s a collective, generic you) really want from URJ is the mechanism to bring you together, provide you the resources, and then leave you alone (possibly to complain about being left alone). The college years are all about learning to be independent.

    I understand, but don’t share, Randi’s cynicism as expressed above. We who are synagogue Jews have to see ourselves as the “saving remnant” who will find our own mishkanim, silently thanking those who don’t participate with us but who still enable us to do our thing.

  7. I don’t see my expression of cognitive dissonance from above as cynical–that seems more more descriptive of the “come back when you have kids view.”

    My views are perhaps idealistic and naive; they stem from being a giyoret whose formative Jewish experiences were didactic and textual as opposed to mimetic and home-based. I actually believe in the synagogue as the singularly important place of tzibbur in diaspora Jewish life. I hold that the needing of a place of study, of prayer, and of gathering is requisite to Jews of any age.

    The “those who don’t participate” aren’t enabling me to do my “thing,” because my thing would be to engage with participant rather than consumer Jews. The model of the consumer Jew gives a mimetic source for the textual disengagement and ritual passivity that makes doing my “thing” almost impossible. You may have your mishkan in TBE’s Kahal, but I have not been so fortunate.

    The Millenials’ DIY-ethic is only a small part of the absence of young adults in liberal synagogues. (BTW-David is correct here in saying that those who have remained Jewishly connected in independent minyanim and chavurot are unlikely to suddenly switch paradigms and find synagogue life enriching.) They are mostly absent because we haven’t developed a social ecology to support the liberal values of prolonged singleness and delayed parenthood. The individual Jew–far from their birth family and without one of his own–is a modern development that communally we haven’t figured out yet.

    • I don’t know if I believe the following entirely, but:

      It’s not that no one has figured out this new kind of adult Jew. It’s that synagogues haven’t figured them out. They have figured themselves out and they’ve figured out that they don’t need synagogues.

      • I think it is at least as much that synagogues have (unintentionally) sent the message that they don’t need this new kind of young adult Jew, as it is the other way around.

        When I officially joined my synagogue, I was single. A very friendly member of the Sisterhood (as it was stilled officially called then) phoned me to invite me to one of their week-day programs. I thanked her for her call, but said that I was unable to attend. Her response was: “Oh, you must be one of those women who works.” Why yes, so I was–one of those.

        If I gave $5 for every time someone at the synagogue asked me how old my children were and then quizically looked at me when I said I had none, I think we would be able to afford the 8 new air conditioners we sorely need.

  8. Larry Kaufman

    Randi, my attribution of cynicism was not regarding the cognitive dissonance so much as towards the prevailing view of the synagogue as a bar mitzvah factory. And I don’t argue that that view does not exist — only that it need not exclude the provision of a more holistic program.

    Possibly my greater tolerance for those who enable synagogue shlemut without participating in it is conditioned by my association with large urban synagogues that provide critical mass for niche interests. And maybe I have just lived enough years longer than you that I have learned to take what I can get and to accept that my tastes are not mainstream.

    Your most important observation, from my standpoint, is the neglect by the Jewish community of the far-from-home-and-family. My “favorite” phrase when I was relatively new to Chicago was hearing, after Passover, from people who hoped I had had somewhere to go for seder. The social ecology whose absence you reference manifests itself especially in two demographics that have mushroomed over the past half-century without being properly noted: post-collegiates who don’t go back to their family homes, and retirees who take themselves to the sunbelt.

    I wonder if anyone has looked at the indie minyanaires to see how many of them are estranged geographically rather than just psychologically from the synagogues in which they grew up.

    • Possibly my greater tolerance for those who enable synagogue shlemut without participating
      I certainly don’t have your experience with synagogue governance, but I am now in my 4th year on the board and have been through the budgeting process enough to appreciate those who donate but whom we never see. That doesn’t mean it has to be what our collective body language communicates: that your money is more important than your presence.

      And maybe I have just lived enough years longer than you that I have learned to take what I can get and to accept that my tastes are not mainstream.
      Are you seriously implying that I am not exquisitely aware how internally out-of-step I am with the congregation I have been serving? “Sublimate” has become my motto since coming onto the executive committee.

      (I also don’t believe for a second that you always suppress your passion for Yiddishkeit and accept whatever is dolled out. It’s your persistent fire and wisdom that has made me admire you so.)

      Re: geographic relocation of young adults–I think those statistics must exist….let me see if I can find a link…

  9. Larry Kaufman

    David, your reply to Randi appeared while I was writing mine. The young adult contingent figured out that they didn’t need synagogues a long time ago — period. More recently, due to the impact of the synagogues they had rejected, a relatively small number of members of that contingent decided they did need some aspects of synagogues, but that they could provide what they needed for themselves more effectively than by cherry-picking the established institutions. A larger contingent continues to believe, as you say, that they don’t need synagogues — in some cases, yet.

    The indie minyan provides the bet t’fila and the bet k’nesset and there are plenty of available places in big cities and on line for the bet midrash. The indie minyan has the economic advantages of no salaries, no obligation to provide t’fila weekly, and the psychic advantages of empowerment and control.

    Out in the big world, there are people who buy their shoes in shoe stores and their clothes in specialty shops, and then there are those who get everything at Macy’s or Target. As it doesn’t say in Pirke Avot, different strokes for different folks.

  10. theseareourrellies

    Depends whether you want to see college students as grown-ups or kids, doesn’t it? If they’re kids, then yes, the movement should be providing lots of cash for them to sit around and eat pizza so they won’t marry non-Jews, just like all other youth programming.

    If they’re adults, then, like other Reform adults, it’s their job to find or create local communities for themselves, and partly it’s the job of local shuls to connect with Jewish adults on campuses, and to form and maintain communal links. If their youth programming hasn’t taught them that, that’s a Parenting/Educational Fail of the highest order, because it hasn’t taught the child how to become an adult.

    So, what do you and they want? To be treated like a kid, with free pizza and free money till you graduate, or to be treated like an adult and expected to participate in the local community as such?

    • Oops, that was me, Jen. Logged in as my mum, because I’m totally not an independent adult :)

      • I’m attracted to your argument to an extent, Jen, but it falls a little flat. I do think that people who can vote, drink, go to jail and work are adults, but lets think about this a bit.

        First, let me be clear that what I’m talking about isn’t free pizza. Free pizza is nice, but if that’s all Kesher does, that’s a failure.

        Adults are not monolithic. We’re talking about people new to adulthood who have little free time and little expendable income. Their needs are very different from their older adult counterparts.

  11. I don’t understand what you want Kesher to be…. and why you can’t do it yourself.

    The old model of Kesher — a couple of staffers in Manhattan — seems seriously old-fashioned.

    Do you want a central newsletter?

    Do you want someone who can replicate the Chabad model?

    Do you want a Reform rabbi who can teach Talmud over the Internet?

    Do you want a guide to starting a Reform-style minyan?

    Do you want funding to buy Mishkan Tefilah for your campus?

    I think if you define what you want, you might be able to make it happen.

    • Larry Kaufman

      If there’s anything David doesn’t want, it’s funding to buy Mishkan T’filah for his campus!

    • I don’t know what I want. Oddly, I don’t even want it on my campus, where I don’t think subdividing our small Jewish population would be productive.

      What I’m angry about is almost symbolic. The URJ has decided that it’s not prudent to spend any time, money or resources on people my age. It’s openly offensive and it’s stupid.

      • Just to be fair, this isn’t fully true, is it? The URJ didn’t entirely eradicate spending time, money, and resources on college students.

        While limited and reduced, there is still “spending” going on…

        • This point cropped up last time I blogged about this. Unless something’s changed, it is all true.

          It is also true that the URJ takes Birthright’s money to do trips, but that doesn’t take any investment on the URJ’s part. The MRJ also still has it’s campus grants, but they’re a separate budget and organization.

          The URJ itself is putting none of its own money into this. Unless something’s changed that you know about and I don’t, Jesse.

  12. It’s really hard to support a hundred campuses with only a couple of staff members at hq and no boots on the ground locally. It’s so hard that I’m inclined to give URJ the benefit of the doubt on this case.

    That said, if you want a Reform rabbi and a Reconstructionist rabbi collaborating to teach prayer online to college students come September, I might be able to help you out. If you give me a student or two to volunteer to coordinate the recruitment and publicity (through NFTY, Hillel, CCAR, etc), Ben Yehuda Press could provide the rabbis and some e-learning software.

    • I’m not arguing that what we had before this budget cut was adequate, but there’s significant symbolism in the cut. Instead of doing something, however inadequate, the URJ is now doing NOTHING.

      • I haven’t seen a URJ budget, so I’ll take what you’re saying as fact that they spend zero on college campuses. (Does providing literature and training on how to reach out to college students count or is that still servicing the needs of congregations? If it counts then it’s not zero. But that’s just nitpicking really given what you envision and mean).

        I think the reason they cut it to nothing is because ultimately the URJ is meant to serve the needs of congregations by providing services that require a pooling of resources. Clearly they don’t see campus outreach as part of that core mission. I disagree with that decision because as I stated above, other than those congregations that happen to be situated close to campuses, it is beyond the means of individual congregations and resources should be shared.

        I would hope that if the URJ were flush with cash they would want to provide exactly what you’re looking for, but we are not currently living in prosperous times.

        • Larry Kaufman

          As Rabbi Sternman points out, the core mission of the URJ is serving the member congregations who pay the freight. There are two ways congregations can relate to the college constituency — by keeping in touch with their own congregants on campuses everywhere and anywhere, and by opening their doors to students on neighboring campuses.

          I don’t see sending a menorah at Chanuka and a box of matzos at Pesach as supporting a Reform presence on campus in the sense that we would all like to see one; and as I have said before, even with more active outreach than just opening the doors to students, the local congregation is unlikely to be able to provide them the Reform peer experience which (I think) is part of what Kesher was all about.

          So — the Union is about serving congregations, and congregations are not good at serving college students, or, for that matter, young adults — so what are we going to do about Reform kids on campus?

          MRJ’s campus grants are clearly not the answer. They are funneled through the Jewish Chautauqua (sp.?) Society, are aimed at exposing the non-Jewish campus population to Judaism, and are funded with dollars raised expressly for that purpose.

          So what is the answer? I don’t have it — but it will be found by someone lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. David Bloom seems to have struck the match, and to him and those that help him, kol hakavod.

        • The URJ is supported by MUM dues.

          MUM dues are paid for by member congregations.

          Member congregations largely expect that their college students will go to Hillel or do a few years of Rumspringer. Therefore, it is of low priority for them to have the URJ fund college organizations, when many congregations are having great difficulty making their MUM dues.

          Besides, the URJ hasn’t found a successful model for engaging college students. If I were on the the national board, I think I would have voted to keep limited resources in something that is proven to be beneficial, like summer camps. And then I would pray that we can change congregational culture enough to make Jews seek us out even after high school graduation.

          • Unfortunately, those kids are going to college campuses where Hillel isn’t always welcoming to Reform. So they’re either doing nothing, or they’re not doing anything Reform.

            And as for the camps, who do you think staffs them?

  13. Pingback: RIP Kesher « New Voices

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