Is there Conservative Judaism on Campus? A view from the trenches

Here’s my recent post to the Shma website about Conservative Judiasm on the college campus. My view is strongly based on what I have seen at the University of Michigan campus. I know that at other schools the culture is different but I think I am addressing a common problem that the Conservative Movement faces.

Is there Conservative Judaism on Campus?
A view from the trenches

By Rabbi Jason Miller

As a college junior, I spent much time and thought preparing my rabbinical school admission essays for the Jewish Theological Seminary. During this process I was intrigued by one particular question asking how I would allocate my time in the rabbinate. I explained how I felt that the college-age cohort was being neglected in the Conservative Movement and that I would spend much time focusing on this group and advocating on their behalf. When many college students leave for school in the fall, they also leave behind their relationship with their congregation. In the Conservative Movement, where so much is invested in these young people before college, it is a mistake not to nurture that commitment beyond high school.

While Koach on Campus, the United Synagogue’s college outreach project, provides some important services for college students, I argued in that essay that if rabbis and synagogues did not make it a priority to improve their relationships with their congregants from the time they leave for college until the time they enroll their own children in the shul’s nursery school, our Conservative Movement would be in grave trouble. I laid out ways that, as a pulpit rabbi, I would focus on college students beyond the traditional synagogue response of sending care packages on Chanukah and Pesach, and in some cases, making the annual rabbinic visit to campus.

When I wrote that essay a decade ago, I never suspected that my job in the rabbinate would be at the University of Michigan Hillel focusing on college undergrads, graduate students and young professionals on a full-time basis. I can now say with some professional credibility that this cohort is in fact being overlooked by the Conservative Movement in general and by their synagogues in particular.

There are congregations that recognize the importance of cultivating relationships with young people in their 20’s and 30’s once they graduate from college. These synagogues have initiated social events for singles, separate prayer services for young adults and networking groups for young professionals. While these programs are all beneficial, more must be done on campus before these young people graduate because it is on campus where Conservative Judaism is hurting the most. When I asked students at Michigan why the Conservative minyan’s attendance had declined so drastically in recent years, I was told there was a certain stigma to the name “Conservative” among students. We quickly changed the name of this minyan to “Dor Chadash,” but of course the name change does not solve the problem.

Young people in their late teens and twenties tend toward the extremes. Conservative Judaism prides itself on striking a balance somewhere between the extremes, harmonizing the Tradition with modernity. When an observant Conservative Jewish student arrives on campus as a freshman and avails herself of Hillel’s kosher meal plan, maintains a Sabbath-observant lifestyle and is interested in a serious yet spiritual prayer community, she will eventually find herself drawn to the Orthodox community on campus. Students lament that the Conservative minyan lacks a strong sense of community.

One Conservative student at Michigan explained to me how the other students at Hillel’s daily kosher meals could not figure out why they never saw him at the Orthodox services. He finally explained that he was a Conservative Jew who keeps kosher strictly. It is his commitment to egalitarianism, he told me, that keeps him in the Conservative community on campus. Yet he is in the minority as most active Jewish students who grew up committed to the values of Conservative Judaism eventually ignore these core values and gravitate toward the Orthodox minyan. These students were reared in the Conservative Movement at Solomon Schechter day schools, Camp Ramah and USY, and are often labeled by movement leaders as our “best and brightest” and most fit for future movement leadership. While the Conservative Movement should be proud of its success in fostering more people who are committed to living a Jewish life, we certainly do not want the college experience to contribute to a staggering loss of future Conservative Jewish leaders.

Much has to be done to address this challenge. More Conservative Movement role models are needed on campus to raise the energy and excitement about Conservative Judaism. All big campuses need Conservative movement liaisons to Koach who will help cultivate a strong Conservative community on campus with guest speakers, classes, and prayer services. Individual congregations as well as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should support Koach and help cover the cost of these liaisons. At Michigan, in addition to Chabad, there is an Orthodox institution with several outreach rabbis that actually pays students to attend classes throughout the week. The Orthodox Union runs a program called the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus that sends rabbinic couples to campus to create a “Torah community.”

Synagogues must spend more time preparing their high school juniors and seniors to live a committed Conservative life when they get to campus. Further, pulpit rabbis should be encouraged to keep in touch with their college students by phone and e-mail. Some rabbis might consider using the latest technology, including blogging and podcasting, to maintain this
connection with their students. Rabbis and synagogues could also reach out to the colleges closest to them geographically in more ways than just offering complimentary tickets for High Holy Day services.

On college campuses where scholarship and progressivism are privileged, one would think that Conservative Judaism would be the popular choice among Jewish students, especially those who grew up in the movement. There is much in Conservative Judaism to be excited about. Let us begin to market that message to the most important age demographic. Our Conservative Movement’s future greatly depends upon it.

Jason A. Miller, a Conservative rabbi ordained by JTS, is associate director of University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. He also is a rabbi-in-residence at Camp Ramah in Canada.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Michigan Daily – Letter to the Editor

Here’s my published letter to the editor of the Michigan Daily that appeared in today’s paper. As a strong opponent of gambling because of the consequences faced by many gambling addicts, I decided to submit a letter to the University of Michigan student paper. When I noticed an article (also front page above the fold) about the second suicide jump from a parking structure two blocks from Hillel and a feature story on alcohol abuse at fraternity parties, I chose to combine all the issues into one letter reminding students about the resources that organizations like Hillel offer to students in crisis.

Campus organizations reach out to students needing help

To the Daily:
I was quite saddened by three separate articles in the Feb. 16 issue of the Daily. These three articles all dealt with challenges many students face on campus today; namely gambling addiction, depression and alcohol abuse (Students win, lose big with online gambling; Second student this month jumps to death; Greek spirits, 02/16/2006). While I was saddened by all three articles, I was also happy to see them appear in the Daily, as I hope they might help to educate our campus community about the seriousness of these issues and encourage those who are affected to seek support.

Gambling has become the largest form of entertainment in America. I am well aware that games like Texas Hold ‘Em poker have become very popular and that online gambling, as described in the article, is the current trend on campus. Compulsive gambling is an addiction that begins with seemingly innocuous activities. Some young people are especially prone to the excitement of winning. However, the spiral of decline caused by gambling addiction is a thoroughly studied phenomenon leading to burgeoning debts, lies, theft and in the most serious cases, murder or suicide. I would hate to see more young people’s lives destroyed due to gambling addiction.

I also applaud the University for any new policies that seek to curtail the dangerous binge drinking that is so prevalent on campus. If this course of action prevents tragic deaths, like that of Courtney Cantor, then it is unquestionably necessary. As a member of the executive board of the Association of Religious Counselors, I know we will continue to work with Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper to find ways to eradicate binge drinking at the University.

When students are facing gambling addiction, dealing with drinking (or drug) problems or suffering from depression, I hope they will take advantage of the many organizations on campus where they can turn for help. In addition to the University Counseling and Psychological Services, religious institutions on campus like Hillel offer counseling services and resources for students and can help refer them to advanced professional care.

Rabbi Jason Miller
The letter writer is the associate director of the University’s chapter of Hillel.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Convicted for Denying the Holocaust

From the Associated Press

Right-wing British historian David Irving was convicted in Austria on Monday of denying the Holocaust – a crime in this country once run by the Nazis – and sentenced to three years in prison.

Irving, who had pleaded guilty and insisted during his one-day trial that he had had a change of heart and now acknowledged the Nazis’ World War II slaughter of 6 million Jews, had faced up to 10 years behind bars for the offense. Before the verdict, Irving conceded he had erred in contending there were no gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Irving’s lawyer immediately announced an appeal against the sentence.

“I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz,” Irving testified, at one point expressing sorrow “for all the innocent people who died during the Second World War.”

Irving, 67, has been in custody since his arrest in November on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he was accused of denying the Nazis’ extermination of 6 million Jews.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Farewell Darko!

Here’s a great trivia question: Who was the #2 pick in the NBA draft right after the Cleveland Cavaliers got superstar LeBron James?

Yep, it was Darko Milicic. There is a vast sea of statistical difference between these two players. Darko has averaged less than two points a game during his disappointing NBA career while LeBron, well, has quite a bit more than two points a game (more than 30 ppg this year).

So now Darko is headed to Orlando to play for the Magic. Perhaps he will finally prove himself there. As Mitch Albom aptly writes, “[Darko] was the firecracker that we watched as kids, standing in a circle, hands in our ears. It fizzled. It went poof. ‘Is that it?’ we asked. Darko Milicic never exploded.”

While the Pistons won’t miss your on-court contribution to their record-setting year, the fans will certainly miss you. Good luck in Orlando Darko!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Great Quote

“Remember when the most embarrassing thing to happen to a
vice-president was misspelling the word potato?”

-Jimmy Kimmel

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Anti-Semitic Cartoons as drawn by Israeli Jews!

  • A Danish paper publishes a cartoon that mocks Muslims.
  • An Iranian paper responds with a Holocaust cartoons contest.
  • Now a group of Israelis announce their own anti-Semitic cartoons contest!
  • Amitai Sandy (29), graphic artist and publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing, from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has followed the unfolding of the “Muhammad cartoon-gate” events in amazement, until finally he came up with the right answer to all this insanity – and so he announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest – this time drawn by Jews themselves!

    “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

    The contest has been announced today on the www.boomka.org website, and the initiator accept submissions of cartoons, caricatures and short comic strips from people all over the world. The deadline is Sunday March 5, and the best works will be displayed in an Exhibition in Tel-Aviv, Israel.

    Sandy is now in the process of arranging sponsorships of large organizations, and promises lucrative prizes for the winners, including of course the famous Matzo-bread baked with the blood of Christian children.

    For more info contact:
    Amitai at amitaiss@yahoo.com or 972-54-316-4117

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

    ‘Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good’

    I’m actually in Texas right now for a Synaplex meeting and thus far I am happy to report that I have not been directly hit by VP Dick Cheney. Unfortunately Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer, was not as lucky. Cheney actually shot his fellow hunter in the face and chest with shotgun pellets. See the full story at CNN.com.

    Apparently Jon Stewart got his prayers answered and I’m not talking about his newborn daughter!

    These fellas better be careful hanging around with this guy!
    Dick Cheney on Rabbi Jason.com

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

    Be Like Nachshon!

    Here’s my D’var Torah for this week’s Detroit Jewish News:

    BE LIKE NACHSHON!

    In 1991, the sports drink company Gatorade launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign featuring basketball superstar Michael Jordan. The ad’s slogan was “Be Like Mike.” This catchphrase was either to get us to drink Gatorade after a workout as Michael Jordan does, or it was to encourage us to perform at the superhuman level of this icon on the basketball court and to then refresh and replenish ourselves with this beverage (which by the way does not bear a Kosher symbol while its competitor PowerAde does). Try as I might, I was never able to take off from the free throw line headed for the basket, with my legs, arms and tongue extended, to then complete a perfect ballerina-like slam dunk in mid-air. I am sure I was not the only one unable to fulfill this “Be Like Mike” charge.

    In Judaism, we have our own paradigm to emulate and it is more attainable than trying to be like Michael Jordan. In this week’s Torah portion, we see our ancestors cross the Sea of Reeds in the pinnacle moment of the exodus from Egyptian slavery. God divides the sea so that the Israelites traverse on dry ground while the Egyptian army then drowns in defeat. As the fleeing nation is cornered into a difficult decision on the shores of the sea before it is divided, a significant moment of faith in God takes place. Our ancestors are trapped between the waters of the sea and the pursuing Egyptian army.

    A midrash has Moses standing and praying at great length during this pivotal instant when the Holy One chastises him, “My beloved are on the verge of drowning in the sea, and you spin out lengthy prayers before me?” Moses was uncertain what his action should have been at this time. God explains, “Speak unto the children of Israel and tell them to go forward.”

    The rabbis in the Talmud explain that while Moses was off to the side praying to God for support, the different tribes were all expressing that they would not be the first to descend into the sea. Out of fear, each tribe was unwilling to enter the water first. One might imagine the many tribal leaders all staring at the fearsome waters and nervously declaring “Not it!” to each other.

    It was at this point, Rabbi Yehudah explains to Rabbi Meir (Tractate Sotah 37a), that the leader of the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav, leaped forward and descended into the sea first. Nachshon had faith in God. He had the courage and conviction to act first. Our Tradition teaches that once Nachshon entered the sea and the water was up to his neck, he began to pray to God. This demonstrates his belief in the efficacy of prayer, but also shows that he understands the primary necessity for action. It was only when Nachshon acted out of faith that God divided the walls of the sea for the rest of the nation to cross to safety.

    For his courage to take action and be the first one to cross the raging sea, Judah, Nachshon’s tribe, was greatly rewarded throughout Jewish history obtaining royal dominion in Israel. In Psalms, we read “Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea saw it [Nachshon] and fled.”

    In life, it is much simpler to be a follower. It takes less courage to wait until someone else has taken that first step to determine the outcome. It is the one who has faith and is willing to take risks who is truly emulating Nachshon.

    It is common today in Israel to hear the adjective nachshoni describing one who is acting with great faith and conviction, and is not afraid of initiating. While being the pioneer is often risky and requires great faith, it is a virtuous characteristic. So, while trying to be like Michael Jordan is an unattainable fantasy for most of us, we do have the potential to be like Nachshon ben Aminadav. He took the leap of faith that changed the destiny of our people. Be like Nachshon!

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller