In the wake of the defunding of Koach, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s college youth group, a group of Conservative Jews at the University of Maryland have organized Ometz, a minyan and social group that has had more success than any of its five founding student coordinators imagined.
“There were a lot of Conservative Jews on campus, and we wanted to try to find out the best way to maximize the potential of the community,” said Katie Hamelburg, a freshman Jewish studies major. The Rockville native said she saw the community of USY, Ramah and Conservative day school alumni and wanted to bring them all back together.
Once Koach was defunded in 2013, Hamelburg and her friends decided, “now that we have this opportunity [to build a community], what do we want our community to look like?”
While the minyan often meets at Maryland Hillel, the group also sometimes holds Friday night services in people’s apartments or outside if the weather
Ometz regularly draws 50 to 60 students to Friday night services, Hamelburg said. While they have only organized one Saturday morning service, Hamelburg said that the group is hoping to “build up” the minyan to the point where Saturday services can be regular.
“Koach lost its funding, and we realized we needed to do something about that, and we wanted to do something about it,” said sophomore Dani Leopold. She and her fellow Ometz student coordinators hold weekly meetings about the minyan, and every other week those meetings are open to the entire community.
“That’s how we keep up the transparency and keep our goal of wanting to include everybody,” Leopold said of the open meetings. “That way, everyone knows that they have the opportunity” to contribute.
Leopold said the group is always trying to be as inclusive as possible. “We know everyone has different interests in their involvement with Judaism,” she said. As a result, Ometz hosts some events that are mostly socially based, some that are more centered on religious observance and some in between.
“We definitely want to continue reaching out to students on a one-on-one basis,” Leopold said. “We know what the five coordinators want, but we don’t know what everyone else wants,” such as more events that take place on weekdays and not on Shabbat.
Aryeh Kalender said the group’s goal is to “push forward the movement of Conservative Judaism and egalitarian Judaism.” Kalender, a sophomore Jewish studies major, said that Ometz has tried to model itself on the success of Maryland Hillel’s Orthodox minyan, which regularly draws large crowds.
In addition to Friday night services, the student group has hosted an “Ometz Shabbat Extravaganza,” which featured students hosting Shabbat dinners and services at their apartments, followed by an oneg Shabbat gathering.
When buying food, “we guessed high and said, ‘Let’s get food for 80 people. We probably won’t have more than 80 people,’” Leopold said. “We had 80 people.”
At the oneg, students who might not otherwise have met were becoming friends. “It was so cool to see people talking to each other at the oneg that wouldn’t otherwise be talking,” Leopold said.
Ometz receives funding from Maryland Hillel and Camp Ramah.
“As Hillel, we want to see a really strong, flourishing Conservative community,” said Maiya Chard-Yaron, Maryland Hillel’s director of educational engagement. “The students who have gotten involved have been really great about engaging students” who otherwise might not have gone to services.
Chard-Yaron said that students of all backgrounds can feel both welcomed and intellectually challenged within the environment Ometz provides.
“One thing that makes it so successful is that it’s totally student driven,” she said, adding that Hillel provides support for the group but that the vast majority of the planning is done by students.
“These students are gaining energy, they are committed, they are gaining members,” said Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel. “If you provide it, Jews will come.”
Kalender said that Ometz’s goal is “being able to bring people together in a more effective way, and expand our davening approach and the type of davening we’re doing.”
Kalender also said the group is focused on offering other types of events than services, such as a recent “Nosh and Drash,” which provided students with snacks and a Torah lesson. Their most recent one was taught by Kalender’s father, Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, and Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, whose son Ilan is also a student coordinator.
Kalender, Hamelburg and Leopold all stressed the friendships that have been building and the importance of the group’s goal of inclusiveness.
“We’re more than just a minyan,” Leopold said. “We’re a community.”