Orthodox Rethinking Campus Outreach
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.