Eric M. Leiderman
Community builder • Rabbi • Artist • Husband • Dad

The Ruptured Pipeline of Conservative Judaism

Nativers enjoying a cultural event during their gap year in Israel. (TeenLife)

In the ever-evolving landscape of Jewish identity and community, the recent closure of the Nativ College Leadership Program in Israel marks yet another fracture in the once robust pipeline that guided young Jews from adolescence into adulthood within the Conservative Movement. (For full disclosure, the author is an alumnus of the Nativ program.) A decade ago, the demise of Koach – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s (USCJ) college outreach program – left an indelible mark on the relationship between the Conservative Movement and Jewish college students. The collective loss of Koach and now Nativ is not only the end of two specific programs but also severs the conduit that once seamlessly fostered a Jewishly literate laity and supplied qualified and impassioned candidates for rabbinical and cantorial schools, as well as for youth engagement or synagogue professional roles.

Koach, a beacon of support and exploration for college students, once bridged the gap between the bustling academic world and the spiritual haven of the Conservative Movement. By offering support for exploring, questioning, and celebrating Jewish life, Koach was instrumental in forging a sense of community and belonging for those seeking a Jewish lifestyle that placed tradition on equal footing with egalitarianism. USCJ’s decision to exit the college space a decade ago created a serious void that many Jewish students keen on strengthening their Jewish identity during their college years still find challenging to fill. Its legacy lies not only in the (now dwindling) number of Hillel subgroups that still bear its name but also in the profound impact it had on countless students past and present. Now, with the closing of the Nativ, we bid farewell to another pillar in the pipeline of Conservative Judaism. Nativ provided a transformative year in Israel, fostering a deep connection to Jewish tradition and the Land of Israel through immersive experiences like coursework at Hebrew University and working/living on a kibbutz, for example.

As the landscape of Conservative Judaism undergoes another seismic shift post-Nativ, it is essential to scrutinize the challenges facing the youth arm of its parent organization, United Synagogue Youth (USY). This once-thriving youth movement now stands at a crossroads. USY, once a stalwart in engaging pre-teens and teenagers within the Conservative Movement, has faced difficulties adapting to the evolving interests and needs of today’s youth. Its failure to innovate and connect with the younger generation has resulted in a decline in membership and influence, leaving a void in the pipeline that once seamlessly guided Jewish individuals from adolescence into adulthood. USY is an indicator of the overall ill-health of the Conservative Movement, as evidenced by the struggles faced by Nativ. The lack of participants in the gap year program can be attributed, in part, to the diminished reach and influence of USY, which traditionally served as a crucial feeder into Nativ.

As these pipelines continue to disappear, the consequences are far-reaching. Beyond the loss of specific programs, we are witnessing the depletion of a Jewishly literate laity, a void in the pool of qualified or interested candidates for rabbinical and cantorial schools, and a scarcity of individuals interested in becoming youth or synagogue professionals. As such, there are even broader implications. As the pool of informed and engaged leaders diminishes, the Conservative Movement risks losing a generation of passionate advocates, educators, and community builders. The impact of this loss will no doubt reverberate through congregations, educational institutions, and communal organizations for years to come, highlighting the urgent need for collective introspection and renewal now!

Amidst the lamentation for the closures of Koach and Nativ, other Jewish organizations recognizing the changing needs and aspirations of today’s Jewish youth and young adults are already stepping in to fill the void. Chabad (C-Teens and Chabad on Campus), the Orthodox Union (NCSY and OU-JLIC), and pluralistic Jewish organizations (BBYO, Young Judaea, and Hillel) continue to demonstrate remarkable success in engaging young Jews both in high school and on college campuses. Their proactive and inclusive approaches have effectively connected with teens and young adults, providing supportive environments and fostering a strong connection to Jewish identity. These organizations offer not only a bridge for Jewish students during their college years but also a potential avenue for cultivating future leaders for other streams outside of the Conservative Movement.

The challenges presented by the closures of Koach and Nativ demand not only mourning but also a call to action. It is time for the Conservative Movement to embark on a path of renewal, adapting to the evolving needs of Jewish youth and revitalizing its commitment to education, engagement, and community building.

The renewal process requires a multi-faceted approach. The leadership of the Conservative Movement must collaborate with congregations, educators, and passionate individuals to reimagine and innovate programs that resonate with today’s youth. By investing in initiatives that bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood, the movement can rebuild the pipelines that once nurtured a thriving Jewish community.

Moreover, fostering partnerships with successful organizations outside the Conservative Movement can provide valuable insights and support. Building alliances with those who share our commitment to Jewish continuity can contribute to a more robust and interconnected Jewish community.

The future of the Conservative Movement hinges on the revitalization of a true engagement pipeline that begins with attracting young families to our communities and providing strong institutional support for their children at each stage of life. We must increase our capacity to once again connect with and inspire the North American Jewish population at every level. It is time for the Conservative Movement to embrace the evolving landscape and actively renew its commitment to education, outreach, and community building. The journey ahead will be challenging, but with dedication, innovation, and collective effort, the Conservative Movement can navigate the path forward and reclaim its position as a guiding light for generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Eric Leiderman (he/they) is an award-winning community builder and Jewish educator with over a dozen years of expertise working with youth and emerging adults. He is the Midwest Regional Director of IsraelLINK, President & co-founder of Masorti on Campus, and serves on several boards of directors of national Jewish nonprofits. Eric grew up in the New York Metropolitan Area and has spent significant time in several North American Jewish communities and in Israel. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, with his family.
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