Inspiring Future Leaders: Conservative/Masorti Movement World-Wide

In 2007, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an influential thought piece entitled “The Odyssey Years.”

Brooks observed that “there used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age. Of the new ones, the [most amorphous, most in-flux/fluid, most transient]… is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood… 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.”

In previous generations, most young adults had married, had their first child, started their career, and moved into a community by age 30. Today, people marry later, have children later, concretize a career track later (or have multiple careers), and set down roots in a neighborhood later. The post-college years, ages 21 to 39, have become an “odyssey” stage of life, especially for single adults.

The tumult of the odyssey years is made more challenging by a decline in membership at traditional clubs, religious organizations, and recreational leagues. The image proposed by Robert Putnam is that more and more folks are “bowling alone.” What is missing, Putnam posits, is the “the bonding social capital… a kind of sociological superglue… the in-group loyalty,” he writes, describing the social networks of close friendships. A relevant YouGov Survey reports that “a third of millennials feel lonely and a fifth say they have no friends.” Often lacking meaningful engagement with peers, Jewish young adult identity formation is in peril, as is the prospect of finding a Jewish spouse.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l famously emphasized that “Jews need other Jews in order to be Jewish,” to have Jewish friends, to be involved in Jewish activities, and to create a Jewish household. Efforts are being made to engage Jewish young adults. As noted by Professor Jack Wertheimer:

  • “Social gatherings draw the largest turnout, as do concerts, film festivals, and other cultural events
  • Smaller numbers attend Shabbat and holiday celebrations, retreats, and recreational programs such as outdoor treks
  • Depending on their interests, young Jewish adults participate in peer-led minyanim, Orthodox outreach programs, or religious services sponsored by local (Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox) synagogues…all directed exclusively to younger Jews
  • They also elect to engage with other Jewish peers in social action projects for nonsectarian or Jewish causes. Some attend demonstrations…
  • Some participate in programs offered specifically for peers of their age by national Jewish organizations…
  • Plus affinity groups such as those for the LGBT young adults…”

Of perhaps greater concern is motivating future Jewish professional and lay leaders. This imperative is being addressed by sectors of the Jewish community such as the Conservative/Masorti Movement.

A Case Study: Young Adult Leadership Programs-Conservative/Masorti Movement.

Interlocking institutions within the Conservative/Masorti Movement nurture several thousand young adult future leaders — rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and communal workers, academicians, lay leaders, Torah readers, and Baalay Tefila. These include:

  • Rabbinical Seminary communities
  • JTS (NYC), Ziegler (LA), Schechter (Jerusalem), Seminario (Buenos Aires), and Frankel (Germany) – please refer to their respective websites for further details
  • Alumni Networks of Solomon Schechter Day Schools
  • Alumni Networks of USY
  • Minyanim For Young Adults in Urban Congregations

In addition, the following organizations have also taken on the challenge of reversing trends in the Jewish leadership pipeline:

  1. MAROM

MAROM is an acronym for “Mercaz Ruchani u’ Masorti”– the Center for Spiritual and Masorti Judaism. It was established by Rabbi Joe Wernik and the World Masorti Movement 17 years ago. MAROM is intended to serve as a world-wide leadership training platform for Conservative/Masorti people ages 18 to 35 years old, serving to nurture the alumni of NOAM OLAMI (the Masorti global Youth Movement for ages eight to 18).

MAROM’s primary goal has been to connect young adults with one another and to fortify their Jewish and Zionist identity. The organization sees itself as a venue in which future Jewish leaders “can express themselves, [and] learn and meet others in a positive, challenging, and supportive atmosphere.”

With activities that take place in its 13 chapters — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Russia, Spain, the UK, Uruguay, and the Ukraine —MAROM is gradually expanding its reach into North America by working in tandem with Masorti-On-Campus and Reshet Ramah (the Network of Ramah Alumni and their friends).

More than 2,000 future Jewish leaders come together under MAROM’s auspices, celebrating Shabbat and holidays, engaging in “text study, regional seminars, cultural festivals, social events, discussions, and lectures on topics of Jewish interest and Zionism.”

MAROM’s Israel focus is enhanced via short- and long-term opportunities for leadership. It supports those among its ranks who choose aliyah and encourages hagshamah, or self-realization, for these soon-to-be Olim. Once aliyah has taken place, MAROM Olami continues to engage recent immigrants to Israel by “offering seminars, support groups, learning groups, and more.”

  1. NOAM Israel

NOAM (Israel’s Masorti Youth Movement) serves 3,000 youngsters between the ages eight and 18, and offers engagement opportunities for young-adult alumni as well.

Each year, approximately 40 high school NOAM graduates enter its Volunteer Service Gap Year, which enables their “volunteering in community organizations through NOAM before they enlist in the IDF.”

NOAM also facilitates the recruitment of about 20 young adults annually into the IDF in forming a Nahal Brigade. The NOAM Nahal Brigade structure enables a tight cluster of future leaders “to continue to express NOAM values of Jewish pluralism even while taking on leadership roles in the army.”

After completing service in the IDF, NOAM graduates are encouraged “to create communities in different locations throughout Israel.” Their involvement facilitates the “assimilation of values of NOAM and the Masorti Movement throughout Israel.”

NOAM Israel implements leadership skills learned during adolescent years by “sending counselors to train staff in NOAM OLAMI summer and winter camps…in the Ukraine, England, USA and Argentina.”

An annual high point is when NOAM, in partnership with MAROM, hosts a Shabbat event for 18 and 19-year-olds from Israel and abroad.

  1. Hannaton Midrasha at Kibbutz Hannaton

The Hannaton Midrasha conducts The Hannaton Leadership Institute, which offers one-week seminars that promote Jewish identity, Zionism, and immersive Jewish learning. “The program’s goal is to send the participants back to their home communities (in Israel and in the Diaspora) after study and leadership training that can help them raise awareness around Jewish and Israeli concerns, and contribute to the Jewish journeys of their peers.”

Seminar topics include:

  • The Galilee as a model for Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel
  • Judaism and Democracy – religion and state in Israel
  • Making Israel a piece of your Jewish identity
  • The Role of the Holocaust on Jewish and Israeli Identity
  • Pluralism: Why the future of Israel depends on it
  • Jewish law and custom in Israel: Can there be change?
  • Zionism – from the Dream to the Reality: Aliyah, Jewish Settlement, and Today’s Challenges

The Hannaton Midrasha also offers:

  • Halutzim Workshops for emerging and potential leaders of North American synagogues, federations, and community groups
  • Shared Society Programs that promote activities for Israeli Jewish young adults and their Muslim and Bedouin counterparts in the Galilee, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive society in Israel’s north
  • Pre-Army Mechina, which is a 10-month leadership program for post-high school Israelis. Hannaton also provides Shana Bet of the Mechina Program. An Alumni Network sustains connections among the 250+ young leaders who have graduated Pre-Army Mechina’s combination of traditional and experiential learning, personal development, and individual guidance.
  • Tiferet, “a beit midrash for post-Army Israelis, combining Jewish studies and communal living.”
  • NOAM Leadership Seminar, which is a ten-week program for graduates of NOAM Israel along with a one-year pre-army term of volunteer national service combined with Judaic studies and advanced leadership training
  1. RESHET RAMAH (Network for Ramah Alumni and Their Friends)

The Ramah Camping Movement maintains a network of over 6,500 Ramah alumni and friends who are primarily young adults. During the past 12 months alone, Reshet Ramah has conducted more than 100 events throughout North America attended by more than 2,000 folks.

Reshet Ramah post-college programming took place in the following cities

  • Atlanta (highlight: Shabbat dinner in partnership with the Moishe House)
  • Boston (highlights: limud with a Ramah alum rabbi; Yom Ha’atzmaut dinner and celebration)
  • Chicago (highlights: alumni moms’ night out with a happy hour and group art-project; young families Shabbat dinner)
  • Washington, DC (highlight: annual tour of the US Capitol with Ramah alum Congressman Ted Deutch)
  • New York (highlights: annual Megillah Madness Purim event with over 200 attendees, monthly Friday night Ramah Minyan; walking tour of Jewish Colonial New York led by a Ramah alumnus)
  • Philadelphia (highlight: annual hamantaschen-baking)
  • San Francisco (highlights: assembling and distributing care packages to the homeless; Sukkot cookout)
  • Jerusalem (highlight: Chanukah happy hour)
  • The Backcountry Bayit, a Jewish communal home in Frisco, CO, and supported by Reshet Ramah, hosted 25 events (primarily Shabbat dinners) over the 6-month ski season, engaging over 700 visitors.

Reshet Ramah’s 24 campus-based coordinators also organized over 100 events across 17 universities in the US and Canada. Fifty percent of these events were Shabbat- or holiday-related.

On November 9, 2018, Reshet Ramah celebrated annual Shabbat Across Ramah, with over 150 Shabbat dinners and/or minyanim happening across 66 cities in the US, Canada, and Israel.

  1. USY/NATIV

NATIV is USY’s gap year program each year for several dozen USY alumni following high school graduation. It is dedicated “to creating and inspiring the Conservative Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

Nativ’s slogan is “Live, learn, make lifetime friends and explore Israel for an unforgettable year before college.”

The word Nativ means “path” in Hebrew. Nativ provides a unique opportunity to explore new directions on a young person’s individual journey to becoming a Jewish adult. The curriculum immerses Nativ participants “in the rich and diverse society of Israel, exploring the land and enjoying a fulfilling Conservative Jewish lifestyle.”

  1. CONSERVATIVE YESHIVA (at the Fuchsburg Center in Jerusalem)

Each year 400 to 600 students engage in the Conservative Yeshiva [CY], the vast majority of whom are young adults.

These numbers include professionals and community lay leaders studying “lishma” (for its own sake, without credit) in “semester/year programs, summer tracks, and winter break programs.”

CY brings together rabbinical students and spiritual leaders from North America, Europe, the UK, and Uganda “who come to hone their textual, ritual, and leadership skills. It embraces people “who study in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Swedish.”

CY’s array of Young Adult Leadership programs include:

  • Ramah Winter Training Institute – brings Roshei Eidah [Division Leaders] together from all of the Ramah camps across North America for a week of intensive text study and hadracha training based at the CY
  • Ta’amu College Winter Break Program – brings North American college students together for a two-week winter study intensive. A high percentage of participants end up enrolling full-time at the CY following university
  • Keilim Summer College Intensive – brings college students from the UK, North America, and Sweden together for three weeks of Talmud study and peer exchange, including Shabbat programming
  • Spanish Noam/MAROM Intensive – emerging leaders from Latin America go to the CY in July for three weeks of intensive Ulpan, Spanish-Hebrew Torah study, and leadership development
  • Upwards of 750 North American high school and post high-school students have come on FJC-operated Israel Programs
  1. Masorti On Campus

Building upon the 23-year legacy of KOACH – the Conservative movement’s college organization – in 2014 students mobilized to form Masorti On Campus for both outreach and engagement.

As noted by one of the original founders, Alyssa Blumenthal, a former Queens College intern for Koach, such an organization plays an important role in the evolution of a student’s Jewish identity. “It’s a time when you’re figuring things out.”

Blumenthal observed that Masorti On Campus offers “a chance to be part of a community that’s not the synagogue you grew up in, surrounded by peers who are trying to work their identities in the same way you are.”

She stressed the importance of Masorti On Campus for off-campus synagogue life. “We are the people who teach in junior congregations and Hebrew schools. We are advocates on campus and then we come home from college and become active in our shuls. We care passionately about Judaism in our own way.”

Masorti On Campus provides a platform for hundreds of future leaders “to come together and meet people who share the same ideals and approaches to Judaism and to life. It’s a powerful force for us to come together Jewishly.”

Working in collaboration with Mercaz Olami, MAROM Olami, Mercaz USA, Reshet Ramah, and the Conservative Yeshiva, Masorti on Campus is beginning to train additional leaders for chapters on various North American campuses.

TODAY’S JEWISH YOUNG ADULTS graduate from college and enter into a world of “uncertainty, diversity, searching, and tinkering.”

David Brooks notes that “old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established, and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.”

Sectors of the Jewish world are creating structured opportunities for post-college young adults to gather with Jewish peers, to sort out their identities and their future path.

By addressing the social, spiritual, and educational needs of thousands of future Jewish leaders, Conservative/Masorti institutions play an important role in shaping the global Jewish future.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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