Chabad grows its presence on college campuses
Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, his wife, Goldie, and their infant son moved to Illinois nearly 19 years ago “on a dollar and a dream,” as Rabbi Tiechtel puts it. They were embarking on a mission as emissaries, or Shluchim in Hebrew, for the Chassidic Orthodox Jewish Chabad Lubavitch movement, hoping their new home would be a home away from home for Jewish students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“We started in the second floor of a house and an attic,” Rabbi Tiechtel recalls. “We slept in the attic and Chabad was on the second floor, and the next year we rented out the whole house. Then in ’05 we purchased the first property, a center off campus.”
“In August 2003 we had 14 people around the table, including me, my wife and baby; we now average about 150 a week for Shabbat dinner,” Rabbi Tiechtel says.
Earlier this year the Chabad Center at Illinois moved into a newly purchased 27,000-square-foot building, featuring ample lounge and study space, dormitory rooms for 32 students, a commercial kitchen for kosher cooking, and space to seat up to 300 guests for the holiday meals and Shabbat dinners that are central to the Chabad on Campus center’s programming. The center has a $903,000 annual operating budget.
The number of Chabad on Campus centers founded and led by husband-and-wife emissaries—rabbis and rebbetzins—has grown markedly over the past 20 years, from 36 dedicated Chabad on Campus centers in 2000 to 258 today, with the vast majority (207) of those centers being in the U.S. and Canada, according to statistics provided by Chabad’s national organization, which is headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y. An additional 97 Chabad centers offer some dedicated programming for college students while also serving a broader community. Chabad reports that it serves Jewish students at 708 colleges and universities worldwide.
The growth of Chabad on American campuses over the past two decades has been all the more remarkable because Chabad Lubavitch has few adherents among college students, relatively small numbers of whom adhere to the strict standards of Orthodox Jewish practice, including observance of the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws, modeled by the Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins. Indeed, a 2016 study found that Chabad on Campus centers attract students from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds—including from Reform, Conservative and nondenominational Jewish backgrounds—and that relatively few are Orthodox.
The study, commissioned and funded by the Hertog Foundation, found that alumni who frequently participated in Chabad activities during college had higher scores on postcollege measures of Jewish attitudes and behavior than less frequent participants and that the impact appeared to be greatest among students who were raised in Reform Jewish households or those with no denominational affiliation.
“People with minimal Jewish backgrounds are strongly attracted to Chabad for all kinds of reasons, not because they necessarily want to be practicing Orthodox Judaism, but because they find a very warm, inviting, fun, I would even say sort of hip and cool environment that they feel very comfortable in,” says Mark I. Rosen, the lead author of the Hertog Foundation study and a former associate professor in Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. “Some small subset of those people then say, ‘Hey, I want to learn more,’ but not necessarily, and there isn’t a lot of pressure for that. Another thing that came out of our study was there was a misconception that Chabad is out to make everyone Orthodox, that they have that secret agenda, and they don’t. Their philosophy is summed up in one word: ‘more.’ If you do a little more Judaism than you did before you came, then they’re happy.”
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, who with his wife founded the Chabad Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, says he and fellow Chabadnik rabbis “have black hats, we have beards. On Shabbat we wear long coats … We are who we are. We don’t pretend we’re somebody else. On the other hand, we don’t expect everyone to look like us or be like us. The basis of Chabad is loving your fellow Jew like yourself and loving all of humanity.”
“We don’t compromise our values and ideals, and therefore everything that happens in the Chabad house will be in accordance with the highest standards of traditional Jewish observance, but nobody’s required to buy in to that,” adds Rabbi Dov Wagner, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Southern California. “I believe in connecting with our students at face value for who they are. To the extent they want to grow and learn and develop their Jewish identity in additional ways, I’m there to be a resource for them, but if they’re not interested, they’re still there as part of our community, part of the Jewish people.”
The centers, which are each structured as independent nonprofits, receive initial seed funding from Chabad on Campus International but after several years are expected to be self-sustaining, typically building fundraising bases first with parents and over time with alumni. In addition to Shabbat and holiday programming, Chabad on Campus centers often offer Torah and Jewish education classes, Israel education and advocacy programs, and kosher meal options. The Chabad Center at USC takes orders on its website from parents who want to send their kids a free bowl of homemade soup when they’re sick.
Emissaries and observers alike attribute Chabad’s appeal to college students from a range of Jewish backgrounds to the personal relationships the rabbis and rebbetzins cultivate with students and the family-like atmosphere they create.
“Our way of teaching is to tell students we are here, our family lives here, we’re going to be here forever, our motivation for being here is our concern and our caring for you and your future—come to us and be a part of our family,” says Rabbi Yossy Gordon, chief executive officer of Chabad on Campus International. “Our houses are all staffed by families who live in the Chabad house or near the Chabad house. We’re not saying to someone, ‘Come to my place of business.’ I’m saying to someone, ‘Come to my home.’”
Rivkah Slonim, who with her husband co-founded the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at the State University of New York at Binghamton, arrived on campus in 1985 with her husband and baby and began hosting Shabbat dinners around the dining room table gifted by her parents as a wedding present. The Slonims had eight more children, all born and raised at Binghamton. As Binghamton’s Chabad center grew—she says an average Shabbat dinner now brings in between 350 and 400 students—they brought in three additional rabbi and rebbetzin couples, including their eldest son and his wife, to help run the center.
“You really can’t separate our work from our life—it’s not possible,” says Slonim. “It’s not a job. It’s a life mission, so it’s all-encompassing.”
As Chabad has grown its presence on campuses, inevitable comparisons arise with Hillel International, the mammoth Jewish student life organization that has a presence on more than 550 campuses. While some acknowledge there have been tensions between the two organizations on certain campuses, Chabad and Hillel representatives generally speak positively of the other, saying there is room for both organizations to grow, that they regularly partner with one another and that both are more needed than ever in the face of growing anti-Semitism on campuses: a study from the Anti-Defamation League released in October found that 43 percent of Jewish college students experienced and/or witnessed anti-Semitic activity within the last year.
But while both organizations offer some similar programs, including Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, there are distinctions in model and approach. Hillel has no denominational affiliation, while Chabad represents a specific strand of Judaism. Partisans of Chabad tend to like to paint Hillel as institutional to Chabad’s familial, cycling through professional staff while the Chabad centers enjoy stability of leadership. Partisans of Hillel emphasize the latter’s inclusivity and big-tent approach.
“We’re defined by being the most radically pluralistic, inclusive, egalitarian home for Jewish students coming from all different backgrounds,” says Adam Lehman, Hillel International’s president and CEO. Lehman says Hillel has also recorded significant growth in recent years, having over the past decade approximately doubled its number of professional staff, from 575 to 1,200; the amount of funds raised, from about $90 million to about $185 million; and the number of students it reaches, from roughly 68,000 to more than 140,000.
Lehman said that because students come from so many backgrounds and have so many varied interests, Hillel seeks to engage them not only in traditional Jewish religious services or programs but also in programs relating to social justice, community service and community engagement.
“Chabad is best at speaking for itself in terms of what Chabad does—they clearly have their own approach and their own role in terms of what they do. What’s distinctively Hillel, we are distinctively pluralistic, inclusive, egalitarian. We are distinctively aligned with our university and college partners,” Lehman says.
The 2016 Hertog Foundation study led by Rosen described Chabad as “inclusive, but not pluralist … All Jewish students, regardless of background and upbringing, attend the same events, and all are welcomed regardless of their beliefs or practices. Chabad does not see it as their purpose to teach students about differences among the various streams of Judaism.”
While the Hertog Foundation study found students came to Chabad from an array of Jewish backgrounds, the researchers also identified a group of students who avoided Chabad due to a perceived clash of values. Some alumni who were surveyed expressed discomfort with Chabad’s approach to defining Jewishness—which under traditional Jewish law, or halacha, is established by descent from a Jewish mother—with Chabad’s opposition to intermarriage with non-Jews, and with Chabad’s attitudes toward gender roles and sexual orientation. Traditional Jewish religious services proscribe distinct roles for men and women, assigning dominant roles to men, and men and women sit separately. In regards to sexual orientation, Chabad says on its website that while Torah law “expressly and unequivocally forbids male/male intercourse” it also forbids bigotry and homophobia.
“Our qualitative data indicated that some students avoided Chabad because they possessed liberal social or Jewish values that were perceived by the student to conflict with Chabad,” the study states. “Among these were a preference for egalitarian participation in religious services, discomfort with Chabad’s gender roles, a favorable attitude toward intermarriage, left-wing positions regarding Israel, disagreement with Orthodox halacha on the definition of who is a Jew, and discomfort with the position of Orthodox halacha on homosexuality.”
“I felt Chabad to be both a patriarchal and heteronormative space,” said one alumnus quoted in the report, who identified as a feminist and a gay man. “Not for me.”
Another alumnus surveyed had generally positive feelings about Chabad and served as a student leader there, but nevertheless reported having “a chip on my shoulder about it because the Chabad rabbi at my university told me (albeit delicately, and in so many words) that they do not recognize the validity of my mother’s conversion to Judaism, which was undertaken under the auspices of rabbis belonging to the Conservative movement.”
In interviews Chabad emissaries emphasized that everyone is welcome.
“We don’t check you at the door—we check if you’re COVID-free and vaccinated, but we don’t check what kind of Jew you are or who you are,” says Rabbi Tiechtel of UIUC.
Speaking before winter break, Tiechtel found himself busy saying farewell to students who stopped by the Chabad Center to say goodbye. He’d just officiated a wedding of one of his alumni and the day before had helped an alumnus dealing with the death of a parent.
“I believe that’s the secret to Chabad,” he said. “It’s not about the organization, it’s about the people, what can we do to help the people, what can we do to help the students, then that student becomes an alum.”
Joey Levitan, a junior at Illinois and until recently the president of the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, grew up in a Reform Jewish household and described himself as “not heavily religious.” But, he said, “being involved with Chabad just makes me feel more a part of the Jewish community.”
Levitan says ZBT partners closely with Chabad.
“I’d say our main go-to organization was definitely Illini Chabad, just because of the effort that Rabbi Dovid put in, how much he was there for all of us,” Levitan says. “The best thing he does is make a personal connection with all the people who go to Chabad. One time this semester I came down with the flu, and it was probably 11:30 at night. Rabbi Dovid dopped everything, came over to where I was living to make sure I was OK. You really feel like you’re part of a family.”
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