Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the University of Southern California was conspicuously untouched by the vibrant Jewish life in a city with a Jewish population second only to New York. Until recently, students often came away from four years at USC without any exposure to Jewish life, hardly affected by their stay in Jewish LA.
But as USC actively recruits Jewish students in what the LA Times described as an attempt to counter its “embarrassing history of sometimes alienating Jews,” and as part of an effort to promote academic excellence, the Jewish student body is expanding, now topping 3,000 students (10% of the general student population).
According to Ben Alayev, an Uzbeki native and an international relations major who’s been at USC for the last several years, “the Jewish energy here is moving in a direction more positive” than ever before, and Ben points to Chabad on campus as a major thrust behind that move.
The programs, classes and social events introduced by Chabad Rabbi Dov and Runya Wagner, who settled on campus in 2001, vary widely, offering students numerous opportunities to experience Jewish life at all levels.
“Law and Order—the application, not the show,” “Beating the Prayer Book Blues,” and “Jews in the Gym—a spiritual workout for body and soul,” are among many clever titles in a lively menu advertised on Chabad USC’s website, making for constant traffic at the center. Ben is one of fifteen students who attend the Thursday Pizza and Parsha Lunch religiously, and Shabbat with Chabad will often draw as many as 50 students from every background and level of affiliation into an atmosphere of genuine acceptance.
A monthly Kosher Klub helps increase kashrut awareness and emphasizes its feasibility in Los Angeles, as students join Dov and Runya for dinner at any one of LA’s wide array of kosher restaurants. Holiday programs and community service offer a whole gamut of activities from crocheting kippas and baking Challahs to Pizza in the Hut and Chanukah parties. With a list that goes on and on offering something innovative for just about everyone, Chabad is full to bursting. And having just about outgrown its small rented facilities off campus, the Wagners now signed on a purchase agreement that, when adequate funds are raised, will move the Chabad Student Center to a beautiful property in a more central location on campus.
But, say Dov and Runya, students’ embrace of Chabad at USC was hard earned. In fact, many students initially regarded them with suspicion, and were very apprehensive about them setting up house here. “Students harbored stereotypes of Orthodox Jews and were afraid to identify with what they perceived to be a fanatical religious organization.”
A significant portion of the Jewish students here are “closet Jews,” observes Rabbi Wagner, and many of them are averse to religion, which they associate with dogma. Discussion sessions like Prozac for the Soul at the student dorm, and others held at the university’s only Jewish fraternity house—AEPi—are effective in breaking through these hardened notions, and are a big draw for students who never imagined religion could be both fun and stimulating.
“West Coast Judaism differs greatly from Jewish life on the East Coast,” says Natalie, Blacker, a USC alumna who graduated in 2001. With the Wagners’ presence on campus, she says that the attitude of “each to his own” is changing, and a community-oriented focus is taking its place. “They’ve really brought Yiddishkeit to USC, a university with a large Jewish population that was often overlooked, creating a close-knit Jewish community on campus that unites Jewish students from vastly different backgrounds.”
Maya Buki, a business major in her junior year at USC, which is home to one of the nation’s top business schools, is vice president of the student board at Chabad which helps coordinate programs and activities that appeal to students. Maya was one of a group of students who participated in a trip to Stanford University organized by Chabad during last year’s annual football game and weekender. Spending an entire Shabbat at Stanford University and meeting up with Jewish students at the Chabad Center there was an eye-opener for her and the other students who came, she says. It was a first for many, as they observed Shabbat from sundown Friday until Saturday night while interacting with other students wrestling with issues similar to their own, on a different sort of campus.
Their main objective here, say the Wagners, “is to encourage students to develop a strong Jewish identity and a healthy sense of Jewish pride, and to help students understand the intrinsic value of a single mitzvah.”
And what Ben, Maya, Natalie, and dozens of others find most compelling, is the warmth and openness the Wagners exude, creating an atmosphere that is even more than family. “The impact of Chabad at USC is so much more profound than I could have ever imagined,” says Ben.
To visit Chabad at USC’s website go to: www.chabadusc.com