In a small meeting room at Paul Loser Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey in Ewing, an ancient Jewish ceremony was unfolding for the first time.
For the first time, that is, in the life of 19-year-old freshman Daniel Fox, who was holding out his right arm as Rabbi Dovid Dubov, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Greater Mercer County, bound it round and round with a black tefillin strap as they recited, in tandem, the traditional Hebrew blessing.
In a very real way, the moment was a defining one both for Fox, who is in the process of rediscovering his Jewish roots, and for Dubov, who is spearheading a campaign to bring Jewish education, Jewish holiday observance, and a deepened Jewish identity to the estimated 350 Jewish students on the suburban Trenton campus.
“Our job is to try to build up a stronger identity of every Jewish student and bring them one step closer to their golden heritage,” Dubov said as he sat down with freshman members of the student executive board of the fledgling Chabad at TCNJ. On hand in addition to Fox, who is serving as Israel awareness vice president, were Jeff Kornitzer, president, and Ron Golan and Sheldon Shterengarts, outreach vice presidents. The board also includes Michael Goldberg, social action vice president, and Amanda Silverman, communications vice president.
Since its launch last fall, Chabad of TCNJ has offered students a Thursday-evening class on Jewish philosophy, a campus Hanukka menora-lighting and latkes party, a Tu B’Shevat celebration, and the distribution of some 200 shalach manot Purim treats packages. In addition, the student board publishes and hand-delivers a weekly newsletter, “L’Chaim,” offering Torah commentary, holiday stories, Israel news, and information about Jewish activities across the campus.
“That’s why we’re finding success,” said Kornitzer, a 19-year-old from Wayne who plans to attend medical school. “There’s a niche for us to do holiday programs.”
The college already has a Hillel/Jewish Student Union, but the students at Chabad said they consider it more of a social entity on campus.
In a telephone interview, Laura Munice, president of the Hillel/Jewish Student Union, said she was surprised to hear her organization defined as one that is primarily social.
“I don’t really think it’s just social. It’s a combination of social and religious – a balance of the two,” said Munice, a 21-year-old junior from Marlboro. “We do celebrate all the holidays and we actually have Friday-night services every week, where Chabad doesn’t.”
When Chabad first came on campus, she said, she saw it as a threat. “There are very few Jews on campus,” she said. “I thought if we had two organizations on campus, people would pick and choose. But we’re just trying to work together now.”
In fact, Munice said, she hopes the two organizations can join hands to cosponsor big events next year, such as a campus Hanukka party. “I do think we need to work with them, to keep in contact and have a good relationship,” she said, “so students will feel welcome to go to both.”
For Chabad at TCNJ, plans for next year will also include running expanded holiday programs, initiating social action projects, bringing in guest speakers, and reaching out to more students, according to Kornitzer, who considers himself a traditionally observant Jew, “It’ll continue to grow and continue to reach out and touch more Jewish people.
“Chabad on campus serves an important function in bringing all Jews into seeing their similarities, not their differences – to see that no matter where we are in life, we can be an active part of the Jewish community in general,” he added. “I think that was lacking on campus.”
Golan, 18, a biology major from Ocean Township who is also a member of the Hillel/Jewish Student Union, agreed. “I think it’s nice to have another Jewish organization on campus and to have an opportunity to get more Jewish education,” he said. “It’s nice to have both options on campus.”
In fact, said Fox, when he distributes copies of “L’Chaim” to students in the freshmen dorms, “most are open arms in terms of interacting with us. Just the act of going out and talking to them and saying, we want you to be part of us – most of them love it.”
“It’s nice to have a group that encourages any Jew, whether you’re very religious or not religious at all,” added Shterengarts, 18, a biology major from Paramus.
For example, he said, his family is not very religious. But recently, he learned that his great-grandfather was a rabbi in the Former Soviet Union. When the family fled to America to escape anti-Semitism, he said, they left their religious life behind. “If they didn’t have to leave, right now I might be very religious,” he said. “I want to see how things could be. So this is a great organization. You can learn a little bit and open up your world to what you might not have known.”
A case in point is Fox, a biochemistry major from Pacific Palisades, Calif., who never had a bar mitzva. “Lost in the woods, you know,” he said. “I never went to Hebrew school. Most of the Judaism I know is from my grandparents, who are Sephardic Jews.”
When the fact that Fox had not had a bar mitzva spilled out during one of the Thursday evening classes, Dubov said, plans were set in motion to call the young student to the Torah on March 25, Purim day.
“We will read the Megilla and bring a Torah here for that day,” said the rabbi, “and we will be calling him up to the Torah for the first time in his life. Our goal is to fulfill every void… and to serve all students for all their Jewish needs.”
It’s something he has always wanted, Fox said as he looked forward to the day. “I think it’s wonderful. I’m really happy about it,” he said. “It means a lot. It’s a wonderful thing to be given that honor.”
And it’s a wonderful thing that Chabad is making it possible, observed Golan.
“The rest of the members are pleased to see Dan become bar mitzva,” he said. “It’s great that Chabad brought the opportunity for Dan to do this. Chabad is a Jewish compass. It guides you in a Jewish direction.”
For information about Chabad at TCNJ, contact Dubov at 609-252-0124 or via e-mail at ChabadMerc@aol.com.
From the New Jersey Jewish News;
Marilyn Silverstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.