A hotbed of intellectual activity since its inception in the mid 11th century, Oxford University has produced some of the world’s most prominent thinkers and has played a crucial role in shaping the Western mindset. It was here that John Locke developed his theories on liberty and democracy in the seventeenth century and that Thomas Huxley debated anti-evolutionists in the 1800’s. Today, garbed in the same traditional student attire—gowns and caps are the required uniform—as their illustrious predecessors, students at Oxford University are encouraged to challenge convention and to question everything, with uncompromising intellectual vigor, especially matters as elusive and traditionally accepted as G-d and faith.
An enterprise committed to matters of the spirit may seem outlandish in this environment, so it is all the more remarkable that many of Oxford’s 1,000 Jewish students have quickly warmed to Chabad’s Rabbi Eli and Freidy Brackman. Now a recognized university society, the Chabad Society embraces Oxford’s emphasis on knowledge and intellectual activity, but challenges students to take it one step further. Through a wide range of innovative programs, the Brackmans communicate the depth and breadth of Jewish wisdom with a focus on translating the abstract and the intellectual, into meaningful Jewish practices and the observance of mitzvot.
The typical workload at Oxford (most of the courses are taught in one-to-one tutorials) is highly stressful, but students still manage to take in some of the many thought provoking discussions and lectures that are popular fare on campus. In the last three weeks alone, students were invited to lectures by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and Kasturba Ghandi. Rabbi Brackman has introduced a different genre of speakers—those who create bridges between the academic and the spiritual, the secular and the Jewish, in a way that has students coming back for more. Eighty students attended a recent Shabbaton entitled “Kabbalah and Psychoanlysis” at which Joe Berke, a noted psychotherapist and author, discussed the Jewish perspective on modern social sciences, providing the students with plenty of kosher food for thought.
Peter Oppenheimer, president of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and the Lord Mayor of the city, and the Queen’s representative to Oxford—the Lord Lieutenant, officiated at Chabad’s menorah lighting ceremony last week, with some one hundred people in attendance.
The Brackmans have also managed to procure a slot at the famed Bodleian Library—second in the world only to the Library of Congress—where dozens of students gather each week for a class on Chasidut. And even as Chabad encourages students “to think, to challenge and to probe ever deeper,” says Esteban Hubner, an Argentinian Jewish grad student with little prior affiliation, the Brackmans work with students to explore another dimension to life, to a faith that transcends the limits of human intelligence. It is a challenging proposition at this quintessential home of cold intellect, but the level of receptivity is so high, that Chabad is fast outgrowing its present home.
Friday nights at the Brackmans typically draw some sixty students from every stripe, for a Shabbat dinner in a homey atmosphere—so appreciated by many of the students who are an ocean away from home. Over bowls of hot chicken soup students connect with the Brackmans and experience the joy and vitality of Jewish family life. “Once a student has come by once for a Shabbat meal,” says Fraidy, “they always come back. It’s getting them to brave the unknown and take the first step that’s the challenge.”
Esteban, who was raised secular and harbored strong anti-religious sentiments that only intensified during his years in college at Hebrew University, is finally letting go of his preconceived notions about Jewish rites and rituals. He attributes this change to his exposure to Chabad on campus. “The Brackmans present Judaism to students here in a very unique way,” he concedes.
Esteban’s sentiments are echoed by many others. According to Vanessa Moussaieffe, a regular at Chabad, this is a place where students are “encouraged to think about Judaism for ourselves, on whatever level we want or are ready for: no pressure, no dogma, just support all the way.”