Binghamton University senior Eric Leiderman of Englewood believes that the organized Jewish community has not been asking the right question.
Mr. Leiderman, co-founder and director of institutional advancement of Masorti on Campus, said that rather than asking how to get more young adults to join shuls, “the question should be about getting them to live as intellectually honest traditional egalitarian Jews.
“It’s not about bricks and mortar and being on a committee,” he said. “It’s critical to support young adults both in college and afterwards, even if they don’t join shuls.”
Mr. Leiderman, whose group is working to provide that support, is a graduate of Englewood’s Moriah School and the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His family belongs to Englewood’s Kol Haneshamah.
This week, he received the 2015 Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Award at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s convention in Schaumburg, Ill.
“The idea that Conservative Judaism is dying is a complete misunderstanding of how young adults today practice Judaism,” Mr. Leiderman said. “Traditional egalitarian minyans, chavurah-style, exist in cities across the United States. But since they’re not affiliated with a larger organization, they don’t get counted. They are there, but people don’t know.”
Students who had been active in Koach, United Synagogue’s program for college students, created Masorti on Campus in reaction to United Synagogue’s decision to defund Koach. Although United Synagogue’s strategic plan stressed the importance of college students, in 2013 nonetheless it decided to put Koach “on hiatus,” a state of suspended animation from which it never has been — and likely never will be — resuscitated.
Masorti on Campus is independent, but “we work closely with the Jewish Theological Seminary and partner with other organizations like Masorti Olami and Marom,” Mr. Leiderman said. The group tries to work with the entire Conservative movement, he added. Masorti on Campus does not yet have any formalized leadership structure, but Mr. Leiderman is its de facto head.
“We consider Koach as a legacy,” he said. While the two groups are similar in that Mr. Leiderman’s group, like Koach, works through campus
Hillel groups, unlike its predecessor, “We’re run by students and are student-driven as opposed to being part of a larger entity. It’s a bottom-up structure.”
“The staff consists of me, our ‘adult-in-residence,’ Rabbi Dave Siegel, the executive director of the Hofstra Hillel, and one paid programming assistant,” he added. “We do fundraising to pay for her and for Shabbatons.”
“It seems to be working well,” Mr. Leiderman said. “Our measure of success is different. We don’t think in terms of the number of campuses affiliated with our organization, but rather how many students and campuses have traditional egalitarian minyanim.”
Through Masorti on Campus, students on different campuses “talk together and share ideas,” he said. The organization also has sponsored two Shabbatons. The first one, held in February 2014 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, attracted some 65 students. The second, held in February of this year at the University of Maryland, drew about 140 participants.
While most attendees came mainly from the East Coast, others came “from as far south as North Carolina and as far west as California,” Mr. Leiderman said. “We’re trying to reach as many students as possible.”
Masorti on Campus works through social media, email, and by contacting Hillels directly. Like the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus — which works through established Hillel groups — Masorti on Campus works with Hillel on behalf of “egalitarian, Conservative-minded students.” According to Mr. Leiderman, somewhere from 35 to 50 campuses have pluralistic minyans “on a consistent, regular basis.”
In a statement issued by the United Synagogue, Mr. Leiderman was cited “for his extraordinary vision and efforts. True to Mrs. Cardin’s example and the award’s intent, Eric is an inspirational example of the tremendous power that one individual can have to make a difference in Jewish life and the future of the Conservative movement.”
Douglas Kandl, co-founder of Masorti on Campus, who nominated Mr. Leiderman for the award, said, “Since the first Masorti on Campus Shabbaton, in February 2014, several smaller regional Shabbatonim have taken place because of Eric’s work. He has caused countless young adults to become leaders on their own campuses and create communities where students can experience their Judaism religiously without the necessity of surrendering their egalitarian values.”
Mr. Leiderman credits Camp Ramah in Nyack and in the Berkshires for much of his outlook. Over 19 years, he grew from day camper to overnight camper to counselor to staff member. He also is an alumnus of United Synagogue’s Nativ: The College Leadership Program in Israel.
Now a student at Binghamton University studying sociology and religious studies, Mr. Leiderman also has been the student president at the University of Hartford’s Chabad Chevra.
“It was very informative, a great learning experience,” he said; he learned a good deal about how that organization works. “Each Chabad House has to be individually sustainable,” he said. “Part of my work there to grow the community was to make it more inclusive. Classes that were previously separate for boys and girls became mixed gender.” His efforts were successful, he said.
The Shoshana S. Cardin award was established in 2013 “to recognize an emerging Jewish leader who is making a difference in strengthening and transforming Jewish life through the lens of Conservative Judaism,” a United Synagogue statement said. The award carries a $5,000 stipend and provides the opportunity to connect with other emerging Jewish leaders from across the continent.