As Nativ goes on hiatus, Conservative teens lack clear Israel gap-year alternatives

Decision not tied to Israel-Hamas war but to existing issues in the program, which saw a major decrease in enrollment this past year

High school seniors affiliated with the Conservative synagogues, schools or camps planning to defer college for a year to participate in Nativ, the movement’s Israel gap-year program, are scrambling for alternatives following the announcement that the program has been put on an indefinite hiatus beginning this fall. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm — while “committed to educational experiences in Israel,” according to its CEO — has offered little guidance for students searching for a suitable replacement.

“New economic realities, recruitment challenges, and the changing nature of what young adults are looking for in their gap year” have all contributed to ending the program, according to an email sent to Nativ alumni at the end of December by Conservative movement leaders, including USCJ CEO Jacob Blumenthal.

The Ramah network, another branch of the Conservative movement, is considering developing its own gap-year program, but that will not be ready in time to serve as a replacement for Nativ this fall.

Amy Skopp Cooper, director of Ramah, told eJP that Ramah plans to play a part in the 2025 experience. “Ramah believes that the Conservative movement should provide a transformative gap-year experience in Israel and is currently looking into what our role could be in leading that effort,” she said. “We have not yet begun meeting with our parents and high school students,” she continued. 

Nativ has typically enrolled upwards of 80 teens annually for 43 years — and while participants during the Second Intifada came home early, canceling the program is unprecedented. But this year, enrollment plummeted to fewer than 20 students (some briefly left after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack but returned). 

However, the cancellation does not appear to be related to Israel’s ongoing war with Gaza. Rather, troubles were first announced last March when the program put out a call for emergency aid for the current Nativ cohort. “We will not be able to run Nativ 43 unless we raise $100,000,” the program’s director and assistant director, Sara Miriam Liben and Deb Shafran, wrote in an email to alumni at the time. Enrollment for Nativ opened as scheduled in September.

In the announcement that Nativ will not run next fall, USCJ did not endorse or recommend another program. Blumenthal told eJewishPhilanthropy that there “are conversations to figure out what that plan is.” 

“This is an important moment in our movement in that we are looking at everything we do to find ways to be more effective, relevant and meaningful. We feel this is a moment where we should take a pause and figure out what the needs are in our community and the best way to meet them. We are firmly committed to educational experiences in Israel and to leadership development that we need for our movement,” he continued. 

Eitan Gutin, the former director of lifelong learning at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. and a 1995 participant of Nativ, said the announcement is “sad and the wrong decision for the movement.” 

“Nativ was one of the best funnels for leadership in the movement, both of professionals and volunteer leaders,” Gutin told eJP. “My own Nativ produced multiple rabbis, multiple other Jewish professionals, a number of lay leaders and plenty of people who have sent their own children to the Conservative movement’s programs.”

Now the father of a high school junior active in United Synagogue Youth, USCJ’s youth movement, Gutin said that the cancellation signals a larger concern within the movement. “If it were only Nativ it would be one thing. Since the pandemic, programs have been disappearing for our middle schoolers and teens. I’m sure there are financial reasons behind it but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating as a parent. Every time the movement cuts a program, it’s one less pathway to building the future leadership of the movement. As someone who cares about the Conservative movement, that concerns me on a macro level.” 

Gutin’s son is interested in yeshiva study after graduating high school “so we’ve already been looking at things other than Nativ,” he said, “but for families for whom Nativ would have been the best match, there just isn’t a program like it to my knowledge, especially the aspect of Nativ focused on living in a Conservative Jewish community while living in the State of Israel.” 

A 2020 Pew survey echoes Gutin’s observation that the movement is experiencing a decline. The poll found that denominational switching within Judaism has led to the largest net losses for the Conservative movement, which, in the 1950s and 1960s, represented the largest branch of American Jewry. In the survey, a quarter of adults who currently identify as Jewish or were raised Jewish say they were raised in Conservative Judaism, while 15% identify as Conservative Jews today. For every person who has joined Conservative Judaism, nearly three people who were raised in the Conservative movement have left it. By contrast, the Reform movement – now the largest American Jewish denomination – has experienced a net gain due to switching of denominations; 28% of current or former U.S. Jews say they were raised as Reform Jews, while 33% currently identify with the movement.

The suspension of Nativ also comes amid a growing number of both liberal Orthodox and pluralistic gap-year Israel experiences offered to teens – significantly more options than when Nativ was founded more than four decades ago. Still, there are few options that cater specifically to kosher- and Shabbat-observant students who also want a gender-egalitarian experience, which Nativ offered.

Young Judaea, which offers a pluralistic gap year program called Year Course, told eJP it is a “natural fit for us to take the majority of Nativ participants until they get their gap-year program back up and running.” 

Dafna Laskin, Young Judaea’s director of services, said, “We are not offering a specific alternative program, but we are beefing up our Jewish studies track option and will be actively recruiting those who would have gone on Nativ.” Laskin noted that many teens active in the Conservative movement have been choosing Year Course over Nativ for years. 

Simon Cohen, co-founder of Aardvark Israel, another pluralistic gap-year in Israel program, told eJP that the group is “very sad to see that Nativ won’t be opening as we believe they are providing a good quality program for those students looking for a Conservative gap-year experience in Israel.” 

“We are continually adding new tracks and ideas to reach out to new demographics; for example, next year we are opening the Aardvark Israel Culinary Track,” Cohen said, adding that Aardvark’s aim to increase the number of students on its programs has no connection to Nativ or what other programs are doing. 

USCJ’s Blumenthal, himself a 1985 alumnus of Nativ, told eJP that the “goal is that we will have a movement gap-year experience in the the fall of 2025.” 

For high school seniors graduating this spring who would have wanted to participate in the program fall of 2024, Blumenthal said, “We certainly want to encourage any students who want to spend a year in Israel to be in Israel.”