Orthodox Rethinking Campus Outreach

By Steven I. Weiss

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Following on the heels of Chabad-Lubavitch’s successful campus programs, other Orthodox groups are now reaching out in new ways to college students of every Jewish denomination.

Non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jews — or mitnagdim — have adopted an approach that is startlingly similar to the one presented by Chabad, the Hasidic sect whose outreach efforts have made it a growing presence at universities across America, according to Bar-Ilan University sociology professor Adam Ferziger.

In a paper that he recently presented at an academic conference at New York University, Ferziger described what students experience at campus Chabad houses: “The individual who enters is given the opportunity to interact with a knowledgeable Jew on a level that is rare in a large, established congregation…. Questioning is encouraged and the tenor of the discussions, often peppered with raucous Hasidic melodies, is motivating, but generally nonjudgmental.”

In response, Ferziger said at the conference, other ultra-Orthodox groups have developed a similar outreach apparatus, in which community kollels (groups of rabbis who traditionally devoted their entire day to learning) that previously had provided learning opportunities to the Orthodox changed their mission, with a greater focus on “outreach” to the non-Orthodox instead of “inreach.” Students are a specific focus of this outreach effort.

In Atlanta, kollel member Rabbi Ahron Golding serves local campuses in a way that is reminiscent of approaches typically taken by Chabad. “The message that I am trying to impart,” he said, “would be one that Torah is relevant to the life of a modern-day college student, each in his own way.”

Chabad, which operates at more than 80 schools full time and more than 100 others part time, is renowned for having charismatic campus emissaries who treat students as a sort of extended family, inviting them to participate in specific rituals or events — laying teffilin, building a sukkah, sharing a Sabbath meal — without requiring them to make a wholesale lifestyle adjustment to Orthodoxy. Ferziger sees this developing in the mitnagdic outreach, as well.

Rabbi Sam Bregman arrived at Columbia University last semester with the aim of launching an on-campus presence for Aish HaTorah, a worldwide outreach organization famous for programs like its Discovery seminars, in which the authenticity of Judaism and the Bible is taught. Bregman told the Forward that his approach is to provide “quality Jewish programming to help students appreciate how special is their heritage,” building off the fact that “these students have never had a young rabbi whom they could deal with.” He develops very close relationships with his students, virtually none of whom are Orthodox. He hosts Sabbath dinners and one-on-one Torah study sessions with dozens of students every week; he even had a “huge party” for his own son’s upsherin — a boy’s first haircut at age 3 — in which his students were invited to “clip a little hair.” Bregman also joined students recently for a 14-day Israel tour and study program.

Trips and retreats are a premier attraction for many of the mitnagdic outreach groups. That’s how the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program got started. The MLF is an offshoot of the University Heritage Society, which runs “Heritage Retreats” of a week or longer at California ranches.

The MLF also invites student applicants to participate in a semester-long program of Orthodox education and immersion, with a cash stipend as incentive. Students meet every week for classes in Jewish leadership and literacy, and for breakout discussion groups focusing on such issues as “dealing with relationships with family, with girlfriends,” according to the program’s founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg. The students also spend weekends in Orthodox communities as part of the program.

The MLF’s Web site, where students can apply, shows no indications of the program’s Orthodox foundation. Indeed, it serves a population that is almost entirely non-Orthodox on entrance. But that isn’t to say that these students aren’t Orthodox when they leave the program. The MLF maintains statistics based on student surveys, in which 77.4% of last year’s graduates said they have taken or have plans to take “steps to increase your personal observance,” and 38% “attended programs in Israel or the United States that allowed them to further explore their Judaism,” such as those provided by Aish HaTorah.

For their part, all the organizations contacted for this story said they have a good relationship with Chabad, and Chabad spokespeople agreed.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Aren’t you shvitzing in that?" http://jd.fo/b49Cq To the non-Orthodox, Hasidic clothing looks unbearably hot. But does focusing on someone else’s discomfort reflect our own discomfort with religious dress?
  • An Israel diplomat responds to J.J. Goldberg's stunning revelations about what sparked Gaza was. Is it really 'naive' to report that Hamas was not to blame for teens' kidnappings — or that Israel's own lies forced it to launch onslaught?
  • The origins of Yiddish, part tsvey: Did Yiddish start in the Rhine Valley? http://jd.fo/g4J3F
  • Josh Nathan-Kazis' epic tale of family ambition and failure in Maine is the first in our project to cover 50 states in 50 weeks. What Jewish stories should we cover in your state?
  • “And why should there be Hebrew? I’m not Jewish, I’m a Subbotnitsa.” In 2006, 13 of the 30,000 inhabitants of Sevan, Armenia, were Subbotniks. Now, there are only 10 left: thttp://jd.fo/b4BPI
  • Sigal Samuel started their Dixie road trip in Birmingham, Alabama, where the cab driver has a Bible on his seat and tells them his daddy taught him to respect the Jews. They're sure 'nuff feeling 'chosen' http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/201953/feeling-chosen-in-alabama/?
  • Why Jewish artists continue to be inspired by the Bible: http://jd.fo/q4PRh
  • When filmmaker Nasya Kamrat sought for a way to commemorate the story of her grandfather, a Polish Holocaust survivor, she had an unusual idea: use his paintings for an animated Holocaust documentary. http://jd.fo/p4RGf
  • As part of the Forward's 50-state project, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a journey through Dixie. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips: http://jd.fo/q4RYl
  • "1. Sex. She had it. She liked it. She didn’t make a big deal of it." What were your favorite Elaine moments on Seinfeld?
  • "Mamie Eisenhower had one, and if you came of age during the 1950s, chances are you had one, too. I’m referring to the charm bracelet, that metallic cluster of miniaturized icons that hung from, and often strained, the wrist of every self-respecting, well-dressed woman in postwar America." Do you have charm bracelet memories? Share them with us!
  • How the Gaza War started — and how it can end:
  • This could be the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.
  • "Suddenly we heard a siren, but it was very faint. We pulled the kids out of the pool, and then we heard a big boom."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.