For a Jewish student on an American college campus today, the possibilities run the extremes from total alienation to a heightened Jewish awareness. It all depends, of course, on how the wind blows on a given campus. Is there an active Jewish student body? Is there a platform for Jewish concerns? Do students feel intimidated to assert their views in the face of oppositional, more forcefully voiced opinions?
Estimates from the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey suggest that there are well over a quarter million Jewish students on college campuses nationwide. That’s a significant number, and for the Chabad on Campus National Foundation, which has active Chabad representation on some 97 campuses nationwide, it poses a terrific opportunity to cultivate strong Jewish leadership. Daily, Jewish students encounter opportunities to speak out, reach out and dispel misleading rhetoric and misconceptions about Judaism, Israel and Jewish life. To do this effectively, they need to be informed.
Education, Jewish pride and strong leadership skills were themes of the second annual Chabad on Campus National Shabbaton, last weekend. Sporting caps and jackets with logos from NYU, OSU, USC, Columbia, Penn State, Pratt, Princeton, and some 60 other campuses, hundreds of students converged on Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for three day Shabbaton.
An eye-opener to those who’ve never observed Shabbat before, and to those who’ve never experienced the brand of Jewish enthusiasm unique to Chabad-Lubavitch, the weekend gave hundreds of students an insiders’ experience of a Chasidic Shabbat. Sponsored with a grant from both the Ufaratzta Endowment for Chabad on Campus and the George Rohr Family Foundation, the event was months in the making, and drew students from campuses coast to coast and Canada.
“The idea was to give Jewish students an opportunity to interact and discover common points of interest and concern to facilitate Jewish leadership,” says Rabbi Moshe Chaim Dubrowski, director of the Chabad on Campus National Foundation at Lubavitch World Headquarters. “Building Jewish pride and Jewish identity with an eye to Jewish leadership was a primary objective, and I think the Shabbaton accomplished that in a significant way.”
Participating at the spirited Friday night services at 770 Eastern Parkway, students then joined their hosts–the Lubavitch families in the community for Shabbat dinner. Many lingered at their hosts’ tables for hours, learning about the families their children and their way of life, before finally meeting up at the largest social hall in the community for a farbrengen,—a Chasidic get-together that lasted until the early hours of Shabbat morning.
Shabbat day, the students—all 500—had lunch together, led by Chabad campus rabbis who peppered the meal with Chasidic insights, traditional Shabbat melodies, and a dose of challenging questions that made students take stock of their commitment to Jewish values. Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of the educational division of Lubavitch, shared a story with the students about an elderly Jewish man he once met in an Alabama nursing home. The man told him that “my Zeide used to refer to Shabbat, in yiddish, as Dem Heiligen Shabbos Kodesh; my father would call it Shabbos Kodesh, I would call it Shabbat, my kids call it ‘Saturday’ and my grandchildren call it ‘the weekend.’
“What,” wondered the man, “are my great grandchildren going to call it?”
“At my table,” says Rabbi Eitan Webb, Chabad representative to Princeton, “the students were in tears when they heard this.”
Sessions and workshops on women’s issues, student leadership issues, social activism and anti-semitism filled the late Shabbos afternoon hours inspiring the students to a greater awareness of the challenges to Jewish life on campus, and the need for students to take responsibility for their own personal, spiritual growth.
Sunday morning included a tour of the new Jewish Children’s Museum. Students then boarded buses for a visit to the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place, in Queens, New York. Here the mood shifted to quiet introspection as they wrote their own notes for Divine blessing in their personal lives, and then prayed at the Rebbe’s gravesite before shredding their notes in the customary manner, leaving them in thoughtful silence.
“Students were visibly moved as they approached the Rebbe’s resting place,” said Rabbi Dubrowski.
Before leaving back to their respective campuses, the students were asked to fill out evaluation forms. Here’s how Jared Goldwasser, a senior at Ohio State University, summed it up: “It almost seems like a dream, because it was that amazing.
“It has given me a new appreciation and pride for my Judaism. This is not to say that I was not proud of being Jewish before, but now that pride is
solidified in the sense that I want to improve my level of Judaism.””