Do Chabad’s gains on campus compete with or complement Hillel?
On a bright October Sunday morning, several hundred people gathered on the front lawn of a stately red brick building by Duke University’s East Campus. They were there to dedicate Chabad’s $3 million Fleishman House, designed as a spiritually welcoming home away from home for Jewish students.
About a mile away, on the campus, stood the 24,000-square foot, neo-Gothic, Freeman Center for Jewish Life, the home of Duke’s vibrant Hillel.
Does Duke really need two relatively new, large and very expensive institutions to serve the college’s estimated 750 Jewish undergraduates? Donors and Jewish professionals who have been watching the two organizations have begun to ask if such expansion is necessary or a wise use of limited donor funding.
“There is no question that Chabad has been a successful entity on the American college campus,” said Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami. “To some extent, it is competition for Hillel.”
Duke’s Fleishman House is the latest jewel in the crown of Chabad’s national campus outreach to Jewish students. At universities and colleges across the country, the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hasidic organization is in the midst of an ambitious expansion program, implicitly challenging Hillel International’s campus primacy. From 1990, when it had just 14 North American full- and part-time campus outposts, Chabad has grown to 287 today.
At the University of Central Florida, for example, Chabad broke ground in August on a $5.7 million, 15,000-square foot, free-standing Chabad House on two acres across the street from the campus, to serve the estimated 6,000 Jewish students. At the University of Illinois, Chabad is investing more than $7 million to buy and renovate a former fraternity house near the campus.
Hillel, to be sure, remains a campus powerhouse, reaching, according to its own numbers, 140,000 students each year.
“We’re proud to offer the most pluralistic, inclusive and dynamic environment for students to build a connection to Jewish life,” said Adam Lehman, Hillel president and chief executive officer, in a statement to the Forward. “We work with a wide range of Jewish groups on college campuses and believe there’s value in offering students multiple avenues for exploring and discovering their Jewish identities.”
“We’re not competing with other Jewish organizations,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, chief executive officer of Chabad on Campus International, who attended the Fleishman House opening. “What we are competing with is the people’s attention. I would like to see Hillel double in size, and we double in size, and we still won’t be done.”
Such disclaimers notwithstanding, the rivalry is real, experts say. Like Chabad, Hillel offers free kosher Shabbat dinners and services. But on most pre-pandemic Friday evenings Chabad at Duke regularly averaged 300 students, outdrawing the Freeman Center, which averaged 64, said spokespersons for the two organizations.
“This is the American Jewish reality,” said Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor of Jewish Communal Studies who also serves on the board of Hillel for three campuses in Los Angeles. “It’s the competitive mindset.”
There is a feeling, said the University of Miami’s Sheskin, “that many of the students who go to Chabad would not be attracted by Hillel. Hillel offers what most of them experienced in traditional Reform and Conservative synagogues and may or may not have been happy with.”
At stake is who, or whose version of Judaism, will take the lead in preserving Jewish continuity, at a time when studies say young Jewish adults are less inclined to affiliate with traditional denominational congregations.
“We want to have a peaceful relationship with Hillel,” said Rabbi Nossen Fellig, leader of Duke’s Chabad.
To be sure, there is cooperation between the two groups, especially on campuses where there are many Jews and resources are stretched thin. But on campuses with fewer Jews, like Duke, the two groups do compete, offering two very different approaches.
Chabad’s growing campus presence, with its patented, non-judgmental approach, offers an Orthodox-ish alternative to the venerable and ecumenical Hillel, which has had the quads to itself for most of the last century, and is now on 550 North American college campuses.
“Chabad is extraordinarily successful because it exudes a culture of authenticity,” explained Windmueller. “Some see them as the authentic Jews, something that may not be duplicated by Hillel. They have figured out the secret sauce that works for them.”
“Chabad has changed my Duke experience,” said senior Olivia Levine, student president of Chabad at Duke. “I immediately had a home when I came to Duke. It is a community and more — you have kids running around and you can help cook or bake whenever.”
For Duke undergraduate Nicholas Chrapliwy, the dedication had a special meaning. Growing up, he was the only Jew he knew in the eastern North Carolina town of Eden. When his father, who was Jewish, left the family, Chrapliwy had almost no connection with Judaism until he entered Duke.
“I loved the messy, loud family structure that felt much more like home than anything else I’d been to at Duke,” he said.
Representatives of both organizations fall all over themselves to underplay tension.
“I think that what Chabad does should not be regarded as competing with other Jewish programs like Hillel, but complementing it,” said Joel Fleishman, the Duke professor and Jewish leader after whom the new Chabad house is named. “It doesn’t make any sense to use the term ‘competition.’”
But several speakers at the dedication said or implied that Fleishman House was needed because, until now, Duke didn’t offer enough in the way of Jewish life. In its story last May announcing plans for Fleishman House, Chabad’s magazine wrote that “Jewish students at Duke will have an official communal space to celebrate Shabbat and the High Holidays.”
The only problem with these credit-grabbing statements was that, since 1999, Duke has already had such a center on its campus.
That year, the Freeman Center opened, also advertising itself as “a home away from home for our students and families, faculty, staff and community,” similar to the claim made by Chabad.
A central part of the Freeman Center is the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, funded by a $2 million endowment from South Florida media entrepreneurs Mitchell Rubenstein and Laurie Silvers, whose daughter Carolyn attended Duke.
Chabad seemed to ignore the Freeman Center, and other Hillel houses around the country, where they are establishing new outposts.
In his blog post, Rabbi Gordon wrote, “on many campuses Chabad is the only source of kosher food, Shabbat and holiday services and therefore attracts students from traditional backgrounds.”
The subtle shade thrown on the Freeman Center by Fleishman House supporters rankled some members of Duke’s Jewish community.
“I did not appreciate all the talk in the press release that there was so little Jewish life at Duke,” Eric Meyers, emeritus professor of biblical archeology and Judaic studies, emailed Fleishman. “The Chabad announcement makes it seem as if there are no kosher meals available at Duke,” said Carol Meyers, also emerita professor of biblical archeology, who is married to Eric. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. The Freeman Center has had kosher meals, and traditional as well as Reform services, since its inception.”
Chabad’s Fleishman House, Eric Meyers said, is certainly “a milestone, but only part of a much larger success story that goes back more than 50 years ago.”
The Freeman Center, built on land donated by Duke, and built in part with university funds, has a staff of 14, including student interns and fellows, as well as a Reconstructionist campus rabbi, seminar rooms and a 1,600-square feet sanctuary.
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The center serves kosher meals, for which students can use points from the university’s meal plan. All the meat is glatt kosher, and there are three kitchens — meat, dairy and pareve. During Passover last year, the Freeman Center distributed 900 Seder meals on campus.
Food served at Chabad’s Fleishman House on Friday nights and on holidays is all kosher according to Orthodox standards. At some point, Rabbi Fellig said, they would also like to serve daily kosher meals on the Duke meal plan.
Friday night services in the parlor at Fleishman House are Orthodox, with a portable mechitza separating men and women. At dinner, wine is served for kiddush.
The Freeman Center’s services on Friday nights and holidays, sometimes held in the center’s 1,600-seat sanctuary, are “egalitarian and pluralistic,” a blend of Reform and Conservative, using the United Synagogue prayer book. As part of the Division of Student Affairs at Duke, the Shabbat dinners are alcohol-free.
But kiddush wine alone doesn’t account for Chabad’s draw: in a 2016 study, two-thirds of students reported that alcohol consumption at Chabad was “not at all” excessive.
One big difference between Hillel and Chabad isn’t prayer services or kashrut, but in their approach to a hot button issue in contemporary Jewish life: Israel. Hillel has been caught up in the fraught campus debates over Israel, while Chabad houses have primarily focussed on Shabbat and holiday gatherings.
“I was and am a great fan of Hillel,” said Dr. Robert Gutman, a retired physician and former Duke Medical Center faculty member who is active in Durham’s Jewish community, and a neighbor of Fleishman House. “But from what I’ve seen and heard on Duke campus, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina, the inevitable and unfortunate competition between Hillel and Chabad on campus takes on political tones — and the stronger supporters of Israel migrate to Chabad.”
“We are by far the largest provider of Israel engagement opportunities,” said Hillel’s Lehman in a statement. He said Hillel is home to 70 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows and 29 Israel-centered engagement professionals, the largest recruiter of students for Birthright Israel and Onward Israel experiences, and the host of thousands of on-campus Israel engagement speakers, courses and programs each year.
“Hillel also takes the leading role on campus in combating the demonization of Israel through BDS and similar anti-Israel campaigns, and in addressing other instances of antisemitism that can create an unwelcoming environment for Jewish students,” Lehman said.
Back at the Duke dedication ceremony, speakers pointed out how far Jewish life on campus has come, from 1911, when two Jews were admitted, through the 1990s, when Fleishman would host the relatively few Jewish undergraduates at his home synagogue in Fayetteville, to the grand, new Chabad House.
“No one size fits all for students,” said Chabad’s Rabbi Fellig. “There is no way one organization can reach out to every Jewish student.
“What both Chabad and Hillel do is to provide a community of Jewish students in which they find relationships with each other,” said Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at American Jewish University. “Thank God for Chabad and Hillel.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to controversy around Open Hillel, an organization not affiliated with Hillel, as ongoing. In fact, the organization has not been active in recent years.