As the class of 2005 toss their mortarboards skyward, the graduates mark their own milestone and the conclusion of a banner year for Chabad’s presence on college campuses. But the headline events, such as the three-day weekend when 500 students from 60 college campuses piled into Brooklyn for a Chabad retreat or when Jewish students from six southern California college got together for a regional shared-Shabbat, are only part of the story.
Chabad’s real impact on today’s college students can be felt in the personal ways each Chabad center on campus reaches out to its students. From the ocean views at University of California in Santa Barbara to the ivory towers at Princeton University, Chabad campus representatives that spoke with lubavitch.com reported that over the past year, their programs were more popular than in past years. So much so that many are looking for bigger meeting spaces for next semester.
The positive direction of Chabad’s campus activities is a good sign, and a surprising one at that. The landmark 2002 study of “America’s Jewish Freshmen” by Hillel found that close to 70% of Jewish students did not consider spirituality a priority. Competing with freshmen apathy, the intellectual whirlwind on campus, class obligations, and the frat house scene takes creativity, planning, and–in the case of University of Florida in Gainesville–sushi.
Chanie Goldman and her husband Rabbi Berl, Chabad’s representatives on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, knew better than to simply plan a lecture series on the Jewish lifecycle. Because attractive packages attract students, the Goldmans and their student board brainstormed and came up with “It’s a Boy, It’s a Girl” as a title and promoted the event as one that would feature information about Jewish life “straight from the womb with sushi straight from the sea.”
By the time the Goldmans presented their night on Jewish weddings, they were ready with an over the top event: a mock Jewish wedding. The “bride,” a UF students bought her gown at a thrift shop and fancy cakes were served at the “Big, Fat Jewish Wedding” event.
“It was interesting because a lot of students had not been to a wedding before,” said Chanie. “They are from small families. Never had been to a traditional Jewish wedding at all. The experience of getting married was something they never really think about aside from looking through bridal magazines. They are worried about finding a boyfriend or a girlfriend, someone who is committed, not a spouse.”
While UF Gators danced the hora, students at Princeton University hit the slopes in Stowe, VT, with Chabad campus representative, Rabbi Eitan Webb. The event was a favorite of Robert Hazan, a computer science major from Mamaroneck, NY. “We went with a group of Jewish students from Dartmouth, and I met a bunch of interesting people,” said Hazan. “I always like meeting people from a similar background.”
Hazan, who attended Sunday school until his bar mitzvah, did not seek out Chabad. Halfway through his sophomore year, Hazan met Rabbi Webb on Princeton’s basketball court. “We started playing basketball together, and Rabbi Eitan asked me, ‘Are you Jewish?’” The affirmative answer led to an invitation for a Shabbat meal. Hazan liked what he saw and became an active participant in Chabad’s activities.
Getting students involved is key to any campus Chabad’s success. Methods vary, but according to Runya Wagner, who runs Chabad’s programs at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with her husband Rabbi Dov, said the secret is to have students invite each other. Out east at the University of Delaware, Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman reports that it’s important to “plan the event as if you were a student. Make it enjoyable and non-judgmental.” Aside from word of mouth, Rabbi Sneiderman turns to budget-wise web-based advertising to bring students in.
Down in Florida, the Goldmans made full use of Gator spirit to publicize their Chabad with a float in the homecoming parade. This year, a group of students helped the Goldmans put together a float that displayed a giant grinning matzah among symbols of major Jewish holidays. “The whole city shuts down for homecoming. It’s a chance for over 100,000 people to see us.,” said Goldman. “You get exposure that you do not get anywhere else.”
If there’s one constant among the diverse group of campus Chabad Houses it is the role of food. “The food on campus figures big into getting the students to come,” said Goldman. “It’s an incentive that brings students along.”
At USC, the Wagners serve Friday night dinners along with another weekly kosher dinner. With offerings such as fresh bagels, tomato soup, baked salmon, French fries, vegetables and fresh fruit, the Wagners add variety to the diet of students who keep kosher. At the University of California in Santa Barbara, Rabbi Mendel Loschak hosts a regular group of 20 to 30 students twice a week for “Pizza and Parsha” and “Café Kosher” events. Mixing food with Jewish living is also an important tool for U Del’s Rabbi Sneiderman. He and his wife, Roni Sarah, served over 2000 Shabbat and holiday meals this past year.
Food was also the crown of the Sneiderman’s end of year banquet. “Students sponsored the meal, and bought close to $300 in meat,” said Sneiderman. The menu included a mouthwatering assortment of top roast, brisket, veal roast, turkey and Chinese beef. The six-mushroom soup and butternut squash soup, mango walnut salad and desserts were “spectacular,” Sneiderman said.
Chabad’s effect on college life is much more than gastronomic. This year, Wagner found that “everything” on the formidably WASP-y USC campus had changed. “When we first came fewer students were proud to be Jewish. Now there is a very Jewish feeling on campus, and students are excited to be part of things,” said Wagner. “A Jewish recruiter has been here for the past three years to attract Jews; so more are coming. The whole atmosphere has changed.“
Sam Rosenthal, a physics and English major at UCSB, who is taking a semester off from his senior year to study at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, NJ, said Rabbi Loschak’s presence added legitimacy to being visibly Jewish on campus. “When people ask ‘Why are you wearing a yarmulke?’ I don’t answer them: Go read a book. I can say, ‘Go get a free meal at Chabad on Friday night.’ It’s an opportunity to find out more and everyone is accepted there,” said Rosenthal.
Spreading the message that all are welcome is an important first task for Chabad couples new to campus. Rabbi Loschak and his wife Rochel opened their UCSB Chabad center in time for last year’s fall semester. “People automatically assume that someone with a beard, hat and jacket is only out to cater to students who speak perfect Hebrew,” said Rabbi Loschak. “The challenge is to get the word out to the students that we’re here not just for religious people.”
Rosenthal, a frequent guest at the Loschak’s Shabbat table, pegged the Loschaks as hitting the right welcoming tone right off the bat. “Rochel Loschak formed a core group of girls around her by being open and friendly and without a whiff of being judgmental. And once you attract girls, the guys are close behind,” Rosenthal said.
For more well established Chabad houses that have a big following, keeping the personal touch is what takes work. At USC, where the Chabad Purim party attracted 800 students, Wagner and her husband came up with a novel way to sum up their appreciation of each individual student. They hosted a pre-graduation brunch where they showed a slide show of graduating students. “We gave a copy of the presentation to everyone,” said Wagner. “One student said his yearbook is what the university expects him to be, but the presentation is something he did, who he is, and not like he was just another graduate.”
Overall the 2004-2005 school year on campus at Chabad was reported to be one of tremendous growth. Popularity has lead to a squeeze on space at Princeton. “We fill up Rabbi Eitan’s apartment with about 25 people or a bit more,” said Hazan, a Chabad regular. “It’s not a huge apartment so when we all come over, it’s very cozy.”
At University of Florida, the Goldmans are looking to start a building campaign for a new, bigger center. Until the funds come in, they are in the market for a tent. The agreeable Florida weather makes outdoor events possible nearly year ‘round, but “when it rains we don’t have room for everyone,” Goldman said.
Whether expansion plans happen or not, when school comes back into session the campus Chabad centers have several areas of concern to conquer to make the coming year a success. The challenge is to keep momentum going. At this year’s University of Delaware graduation “we ‘lost’ some very strong seniors,” said Sneiderman. “We need to develop a committed board and increase financial security.”
More experience on the University of Florida campus has shown the Goldman’s the glaring need to emphasize the importance of Jews marrying Jews, and that will be a focus next year. “The average Jewish student here will date a non-Jew,” said Goldman. “Most kids would rather marry a Jew but they do not realize the implications of a decision to marry a non-Jew down the line.” The Goldmans are already planning an adventurous lecture series on topics that are taboo that will help them address this concern.
Now, when the sidewalks surrounding college dorms and apartment complexes are littered with futons and beanbag chairs and other flotsam left behind by students, Chabad centers on campus take a deep breath. But the planning goes on. After all, come fall there will be a whole new crop of Spiritually dormant Jewish student to awaken