Cambridge, England, home to one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, has for centuries provided students with access to some of the best opportunities for learning and growth. With the opening this year of the Lehrhaus Center, Chabad House of Cambridge’s newest development, Cambridge students will now have the equivalent in the Jewish tradition.
The Lehrhaus Center formally opened its doors on October 19. Situated on one of the main thoroughfares in the heart of the city—an area of high demand and short supply of real estate—it offers students the opportunity to explore Jewish thinking in a personal and rigorous way through special courses and seminars. Shabbat, social and other events continue as always, at the Chabad House situated a few blocks away.
Dr. Damien Valdez, an affiliated lecturer at the Faculty of History, has been attending a course in Talmud studies. The Lehrhaus, he says, “provides meaningful insight into a world of Jewish learning and ethical teachings such as I have never before encountered in any depth.” With its impressive advisory board of Cambridge professors and academics, the Lehrhaus is helping to establish Chabad as an intellectual player among the university’s academic elite.
Chabad representatives at Cambridge since 2003, Rabbi Reuven and Rochel Leigh serve a significant role in Jewish student life at this world-renowned university, thoughtfully addressing the challenges unique to Jews representing about 5-7 percent of its 20,000 students. With an eclectic variety of educational and social programs, they have created a community that is as stimulating and thought provoking intellectually, as it is warm and inviting socially.
Nothing Dogmatic, Nothing Prescriptive
“Our benchmark is whether we are able to attract people who are looking for meaningful experiences but are not otherwise affiliated,” says Reuven. Traditional students looking for a Shabbat dinner, or a place to observe the holidays will find opportunities at Cambridge where there is a Jewish Society. What the Leighs are focusing on, Rochel explains, is reaching students who do not come to campus with any expectations of engaging as Jews.
“We care first and foremost for students as individuals, and because we care, we want to give them opportunities to draw on the wealth of support and inspiration available to them through involvement in a Jewish community. We view our Friday Night dinners as the center of many students’ first Jewish community. We want it to be supportive, inclusive and stimulating.”
Valdez, who regularly attends Shabbat meals at the Chabad House, says he is typical of the majority of graduate students and researchers who participate, having grown up in a “secular environment in which my Judaism played almost no role.” Chabad at Cambridge appealed to him, he says, because “there is nothing dogmatic or prescriptive, nothing judgmental about the Leighs attitude or approach.”
With each term lasting only 8 weeks, a demanding academic workload and a plethora of “mandatory” extra-curricular activities, there is a high premium on students’ time. Add to that Cambridge’s collegiate system in which the university is divided into 31 separate self-governing colleges spread out across the city, and it is clearly not easy for a cross-collegiate organization like Chabad to access students.
“That is why what we are offering them has to be something pretty substantial and relevant,” says Rabbi Leigh, who is currently working on a PhD in Jewish Philosophy at Cambridge. Developing a strong reputation is therefore essential, and the Leighs, experts at breaking down stereotypes surrounding observant Jews, who both give classes to students and faculty, and on Sundays to children, (they each take turns at preparing Shabbat meals and they both share the responsibility for homeschooling their four children), have done this well.
Jude Jacobs, an alumna who now works for the Reut Institute in Israel, underscores the point. She recalls that she didn’t know much about Judaism when she was a student, but that “Chabad taught me about Judaism for the first time—in an open and non-judgmental way. I was never expected to conform to specific rules or standards,” she says.
Political Views No Reason to Be Excluded
Her observation is confirmed by the diverse programming at Chabad, where students can expect to find a reading group on the works of Emmanuel Levinas, and meet students representing a wide range of political views at the Shabbat table. Many students at Cambridge align politically on the left, and Jews are no exception. This can often be a barrier to their integration with Jewish communities. But Judaism, insists Rabbi Leigh, belongs to all Jews. “There is no excuse that anyone should feel excluded from being part of the Jewish community.”
The focus on engagement and inclusivity keeps students connected with the Leighs in ways far surpassing the usual pastoral relationships. “Reuven had a great deal of influence on me while I was at university, I’m not sure anyone else would have been able to reach me like he did; his combination of sharp intellect and spirituality are unique. Even though I have been away for years, I still refer to Reuven as ‘my rabbi’,” admits Jacobs.
The Leighs are now successfully embedded within both the academic and local communities. Rabbi Leigh was appointed rabbi of the local shul; Rochel manages a nursery and Sunday classes for school aged children, as well as the mikveh they built in 2011; and together they stand in as surrogate parents to students, winning the respect and trust of students, colleagues and community members.
Success begets new challenges, and Chabad at Cambridge is now looking to acquire larger premises for the Chabad House to accommodate the growing crowd, and to create more opportunities for the kind of educational and social programming that will help “make students at Cambridge aware of the depth and profundity of Jewish learning and living,” says Rabbi Leigh.
Valdez speaks to this achievement, describing his exposure to Jewish life at Cambridge through Chabad: “I have a feeling that I am entering into a heightened relationship with a reality that transcends my worldly concerns. In celebrating that connection I feel I find my feet again, that the spiritual and eternal is more real than the transient. It gives me strength and hope.”