Like many dads, Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad at USC positioned himself at the grill on Father’s Day, but he and his wife Runya were hosting a family affair far different from most patriarchal backyard barbecues. Under the smiling Southern California sun, the Wagners welcomed 70 USC Trojans and their families to an end of year barbecue. The Wagners dished out barbecue fare and renewed ties with Jewish students past and present.
Erica Solomon, a dental hygienist who graduated USC in 2000, kept an eye on her three sons, Dovie, 6, Eli, 4, and Mendel Solomon, 1, dressed up in USC’s cardinal red, as they scampered around the front yard of the Jewish Center’s converted fraternity house. The Wagners started up their Chabad just as Solomon was graduating. “In the very short time the Wageners have been here, they’ve done tons of events,” said Solomon. “Before they came Jewish life on campus was almost non-existent.”
As Trojans past and present sipped pina colodas and chowed down on saucy barbecued chicken, the Wagners caught up with alumni. “After spending several years with us, they move on and it’s hard to come up with a time to get together as often as we’d like,” said Rabbi Wagner. “It’s important to maintain the connection we developed.”
This was the first affair that Chabad hosted specifically for alumni, but the Wagners have been keeping in touch with graduates all along. “Whenever we have a break, we try to get together with alumni,” said Wagner. “When we go to New York in the summer we will be meeting some alumni for dinner in Manhattan.”
The Wagners’ impact has led a few students down the aisle. One couple, who got to know each other through Chabad, has summer wedding plans. Another pair who became close at Chabad were busy discussing engagement ring shopping tips as they munched on hot dogs. Other USC alums passed around the babies who were designated Trojans in training. “It was nice to see that the people who came did not use Chabad just as a free place to get lunch,” said Solomon. “They wanted to stay connected with Chabad.”
Midway through the event, the guests were entertained by the Wagners’ homemade slide show of Chabad events. When the screen blazed with snapshots from Chabad’s public menorah lighting that attracted hundreds of students, parents – USC alumni whose children now attend the university – gasped. “They were simply shocked seeing the pictures,” said Wagner. “They knew Chabad was active, but they were shocked by the contrast of what they experienced and what Jewish students now have on campus.”
The reaction to the slide show reflects the change that Chabad has wrought, hand in hand with USC’s push to attract Jewish students on a campus that had developed a hazy reputation of being frosty to Jews.
Although a portion of USC’s land was donated in the late 1800s by Isaias W. Hellman, a German-Jewish banker who was chiefly responsible for the establishment of California’s Farmer and Merchants Bank, there had been several anti-Jewish incidents that set the tone for quiet Jewish student life until recently.
According to an L.A. Times report in 2002, USC’s past includes a longtime president who was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer, a cross-burning incident on a Jewish fraternity house lawn in 1946, and an uproar in the dentistry school involving alumni accusations that a dean was ‘pro-Jewish.’
Dr. Les Rosenthal graduated USC Dental School in 1975. He estimated that a third of the students in the dental school were Jewish, but there was not much in the way of Jewish programming. “The Jewish dental fraternity, Alpha Omega, did well, but in terms of Judaism the fraternity urged members to go to Jewish federation functions and that was about it,” Dr. Rosenthal recalled. “And at that time, the Hillel House was sort of a joke.”
Even so, Dr. Rosenthal said he did not witness anything overtly anti-Jewish at USC. “I never found any anti-Semitism in the school,” said Dr. Rosenthal.
Neatly coinciding with the Wagners’ arrival was a sea change in USC’s attitude toward Jewish students. The university hired a student recruiter to drum up more Jewish freshman. Kosher food is available on campus – and at the Chabad house. “Several people told me that there had been attempts at making Jewish things happen on campus before but it was a disaster. We got here just as the transformation was getting underway,” said Rabbi Wagner.
As the afternoon wore on, the Wagners gave Father’s Day gifts to the dads in the crowd – a chip and dip bowl with USC emblem on it. Even though the event was supposed to end at four, some guests stayed on until 8:30 p.m. Rabbi Wagner mused, “In general on campuses you are seeing a greater openness to Yiddishkeit, but I think our success comes back to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s blessings and the welcome that a Chabad House is able to bring to the table.”