Chabad Makes Major Inroads at Universities

Hasidic Group Remains Smaller Than Hillel, But Emissaries Are Pushing Rapid Growth

By E.B. Solomont

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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Toward the end of the spring semester this past May, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi and about a dozen students celebrated a major victory at Tufts University. After nearly two years of vying for recognition as an official student group at the liberal arts college in Medford, Mass., Tufts’s student government finally recognized Chabad.

Rabbi Tzvi Backman and his wife, Chanie, will be Chabad’s campus emissaries, or shlichim, at Tufts, and they’re part of a rapidly growing group. Since 2001, nearly 30 new “Chabad houses” have opened on college campuses across the country, with an additional 10 slated for the upcoming school year.

As it grows, the Hasidic organization often finds itself competing with Hillel as the pre-eminent organization for Jewish university students. Currently, Chabad serves 80 to 82 campuses full time and 100 to 115 part time — still small compared with Hillel, which maintains chapters on more than 500 campuses. But as Chabad gains ground, it is finding its own niche and stepping out of Hillel’s shadow.

“On a very simplistic level, the size of the Jewish community is large and not all students respond to the same type of program,” Backman said.

Chabad’s first campus emissaries were dispatched by late Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, during the 1950s. “From the earliest time in his administration, the rebbe set his eye on the college student,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries.

Three years ago, prompted by existing campus shlichim and a critical infusion of capital from New York-based philanthropist George Rohr, Chabad’s university efforts underwent dramatic reorganization. Ultimately the organization created a governing body for campus emissaries, and guidelines for selecting new outposts — and thanks to a new sense of focus, tremendous growth ensued.

According to Rohr, his initiative aims to address an alarming rate of attrition of Jewish students from Judaism. And with the infrastructure in place to respond to Rohr’s stated objective, Chabad has in the past three years successfully identified campuses “in need.”

That typically happens when area shlichim request a campus emissary, according to Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, a campus emissary at the University of Pennsylvania for the past 25 years, and now a member of the campus shlichim’s governing body. Ivy League schools and schools with large Jewish populations also are targeted.

One such school singled out in 2002 was Washington University in St. Louis, where as many as one-third of 7,400 undergraduate students are thought to be Jewish. Rabbi Hershey Novack and his wife, Chana, moved in, and in three years they made great inroads: They regularly host between 35 and 40 for Shabbat dinners; Chabad programs have outgrown the Novacks’ two-bedroom apartment, so they recently purchased a new Chabad building.

Sarah Katz, a senior at Washington University, is one of the Novacks’ devotees. After feeling lost

during her freshman year, she said, “I personally thank Chabad for helping me to find my voice and my place.”

Still, for every Chabad-loving student like Katz, another blanches at Chabad’s presence. At Tufts, some said that Chabad’s difficulty in gaining recognition from the student government could be attributed to Chabad’s reputation for Jewish evangelism. Elisabeth Sherman, a Dartmouth senior who is president of Hillel, spoke personally about Chabad, criticizing its use of gender stereotypes to attract students, e.g., inviting men to play poker with the rabbi and women to bake with the rebbetzin. One Hillel professional who did not want to be named said: “I am troubled when I came to campus that the woman with the most Jewish education on campus was teaching cooking classes.” But students realize his counterparts are selling a “Chabad version of Judaism,” he added. “Where the tires hit the road is where people do fund raising.”

Chabad and Hillel have had a rocky relationship historically. Individual rabbis have locked horns over scheduling, fund raising, student recruitment and policies for serving alcohol (even Kiddush wine) to minors. Both groups also have competed for top status with campus administrators.

But the groups have improved relations since Chabad’s restructuring in 2001. “The challenge, in part, was that Hillel has been the 800-pound gorilla on campus,” said Jay Rubin, executive vice president, international division at Hillel. Rubin is Hillel’s Chabad point person.

Two years ago, Rubin invited Schmidt to participate in Hillel’s professional staff conference, and last year Schmidt reciprocated. Notably, Hillel’s president, Avraham Infeld, praised Chabad and its partnership with Hillel on campus at the May policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

At least one school where relations are emblematic of this change is at the University of Florida, located in Gainesville, which has 6,000 Jewish students out of nearly 50,000 in total. When Rabbi Berl Goldman and his wife, Chanie, moved to Gainesville six years ago, he said the Hillel rabbi discouraged students from attending Chabad events. Now, the two groups (under new leadership) occasionally sponsor activities together and are hugely successful in their own right. “As far as I am concerned, I don’t see there being any competition,” said Keith Dvorchik, Hillel’s executive director at the school. “If students tell me they are going to Chabad for Shabbat, I say, ‘Have a great time, and tell Berl I say good Shabbos.’”

The innate differences between Chabad and Hillel partly explain how two groups with similar objectives and tactics don’t suffocate each other completely. Where Hillel is institutional, Chabad is familial; where Hillel is pluralistic, Chabad is Orthodox; where Hillel is social, Chabad is religious. Fundamentally, Hillel’s goal is to provide services Jewish students ask for, while Chabad provides services to build a religious community.

Programming is a backbone of Chabad on campus, and at a July conference of campus shlichim, emissaries swapped tips: Plan retreats, bring Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu to campus, invite prominent alumni to speak to students. “If you involve students for programs, you’ll find a life-long bond with them,” advised Rivky Slonim, an emissary at SUNY Binghamton, a crown jewel of Chabad’s campus initiative: The Chabad house there predates Binghamton’s Hillel chapter.

Offering students a homelike environment has come to define Chabad’s presence on campus, where Chabad’s home-cooked meals are de rigueur. At Washington University, Novack makes a point of maintaining personal connections with each student. “People want to feel that I care about them, and I do,” he said.

Despite maintaining Orthodox ideology, campus shlichim are open to anyone, religious or not (some report occasionally serving non-Jews, too). Gainesville’s Goldman recalled one incident in which he and his wife maintained a 48-hour vigil beside a student who arrived on their doorstep high, suicidal and scared.

Actions like this ultimately distinguish Chabad from other groups on campus, which is why Chabad insists that its emissaries are necessary. Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, shliach at Harvard (and a member of the campus governing board), said, “When you go to a campus where there is a vibrant staff, the assumption is, ‘Why is Chabad necessary?’” But most Jewish students still are not engaged Jewishly, he said. “There is an incredible need in that most [Jewish students] are not involved.”

At Tufts, Hillel’s executive director, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, who will be honored later this year by Hillel for more than 25 years of service, said that most students are not engaged Jewishly. Even if 60% of Tufts’s 1,500 Jewish students participate in Jewish programming, 40% are left out. “That’s hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of students who are not yet involved,” he said.

Students echoed the sentiment. “There are so many different students, Hillel can’t physically encompass all of it,” said Esya Volcheck, president of the Chabad student group at Tufts. “As numbers of Jewish [students] in universities and diversity increases, it’s just not enough anymore.”

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