By Cindy Mindell
It is no trivial feat for an organization to expand its reach by 500 percent over the span of 15 years. But that’s what Chabad on Campus International has accomplished since 2000, increasing its presence from fewer than 30 U.S. college campuses to 198 today.
Which makes the just-published Hertog Study of Chabad on Campus largely an exercise in stating the obvious.
The new survey was commissioned and funded by the non-profit charitable Hertog Foundation and researched and written by widely-published Jewish social scientists Mark Rosen and Steven M. Cohen, along with Arielle Levites and Ezra Kopelowitz. The study was designed to identify who comes to Chabad on college campuses, what impact Chabad involvement has on the post-college lives of young Jewish adults, and how Chabad engages undergraduate students.
Chabad houses on campus are led by married couples who are graduates of rabbinical schools and seminaries run by the Chasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Rabbis and their wives (rebbetzins) take their inspiration from the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who guided and expanded the movement until his death in 1994 and instructed his “emissaries” to find and engage every Jew.
“The Rebbe and his wife came out of the Holocaust with the message that if we’re going to rebuild world Jewry post-World War II, the only way we’re going to do it is by unconditional love, and not by creating more divisive boundaries between sects of Jews, but by creating inclusiveness amongst the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Shua Rosenstein, who set up the precursor to Chabad at Yale in 2002 and returned to campus in 2004 to run the Chabad house with his wife, Sarah. “That is exactly why I became a Chabad rabbi.”
Chabad centers on campus strive to welcome all Jewish students, regardless of their Jewish background. In the words of the Chabad on Campus website, they seek to create a “home away from home” and to “ensure that students graduate as stronger and more empowered Jews than when they entered.” Rabbis and rebbetzins hope that through the caring they show and the lifestyle they model, students will be drawn to explore and embrace Jewish practices and teachings.
Over a period of three years, the researchers gathered data from 22 Chabad-Lubavitch campus centers and surveyed more than 2,400 alumni under the age of 30, gauging Chabad’s impact on 18 different measures of Jewish engagement: including religious beliefs, practices and affiliation (frequency of lighting Shabbat candles, synagogue membership); friendships, community involvement and learning (volunteering for a Jewish organization, donating to a Jewish organization); dating and marriage (importance of dating Jewish, choosing a Jewish spouse); Israel (emotional attachment); and being Jewish (importance), among others. Researchers also interviewed parents, faculty members, university officials, and leaders of campus Hillel houses.
Among the major findings of the study:
- Chabad on Campus attracts students from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. Relatively few are Orthodox.
- Many students are attracted initially by the social scene, food, and family environment at Friday night Shabbat dinners, rather than an interest in Jewish learning or ritual.
- College alumni who were more frequent participants at Chabad during college had higher scores on post-college measures of Jewish attitudes and behavior than those who were less frequent participants, once other influences on post-college attitudes and behaviors were taken into account.
- The apparent impact of involvement with Chabad during college is pervasive, affecting a broad range of post-college Jewish attitudes and behaviors. These include religious beliefs and practices, Jewish friendships, Jewish community involvement, Jewish learning, dating and marriage, emotional attachment to Israel, and the importance of being Jewish.
- The impact appears to be greatest among those who indicated that they were raised as Reform and those who were raised with no denominational affiliation. Effects are slightly smaller for those raised as Conservative. Chabad participation appears to have little impact on those raised as Orthodox.
- Relatively few students change their denominational affiliation to Orthodox as a result of their involvement with Chabad on Campus, and virtually none subsequently choose to identify with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
- The majority of those who are frequent participants are affected in ways that bring them closer to the mainstream Jewish community after college.
- Greater involvement with Chabad and subsequent change in Jewish belief and practice are most likely to occur when a student develops a personal relationship with the Chabad rabbi or rebbetzin.
- Gender matters. Men tend to be closer to the rabbi and women tend to be closer to the rebbetzin.
- Relationships with the rabbi and rebbetzin tend to continue after college, especially among those who were frequent participants at Chabad during college.
- Of those undergraduate students who participate in Jewish activities on campus, most attend both Chabad and Hillel. There are smaller groups of students who attend one and not the other.
Connecticut is home to four campus-based Chabad houses – at University of Connecticut, University of Hartford, Wesleyan, and Yale – each co-directed by a rabbi and his wife. While not aware that their respective students and/or alumni were canvassed for the study, all four rabbis empirically confirm its findings. They also realize the import of their mission: nurturing young Jewish adults for the sake of Jewish continuity.
“The first time a kid meets us, they’re 18 years old, often they haven’t done anything Jewish since their bar/bat mitzvah – if they even had one – and they feel like, ‘I can’t go there; I don’t belong there because I haven’t kept Shabbes or fasted on Yom Kippur or kept kosher,’” says Rosenstein. “That sense of guilt and that sense of lack of belonging propels a long-term unaffiliation because they never feel like they belong. The only thing that that boundary-created Judaism does is push the next generation further away. The next generation is exactly who we should be including – and not just including, but empowering with Jewish leadership – because if they’re not going to do it, who is?
“I fully believe that the most important thing we can do for a Jewish student at Yale or on any other campus is remind them how important they are to Jewish survival and to the Jewish community. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never done a single mitzvah or never studied Torah or can’t speak Hebrew. My goal – Chabad’s goal – is to turn that tide around and say, ‘You’re just as Jewish as me and my wife and my kids and the greatest rabbinical scholars and there’s no difference between you and Moses; the only difference is that he lived 3,000 years ago and you live now and he had his challenges and you have yours and we all have our own.’”
In order to engage students, Chabad helps each one find and foster a meaningful, personal Jewish narrative. From Shabbat dinners to holiday celebrations to academic courses, the range of Chabad’s offerings grows according to student interest and demand. But the foundation that draws students is always the same.
“It’s the personal touch that Chabad offers,” says Rebbetzin Shaindel Hecht, who has co-directed of Chabad at UConn with her husband Rabbi Shlomo Hecht since 2004. “As opposed to another organization that may be institution or a building, many Chabad houses are homes. We care about each student’s wellbeing and people know that when they come, it’s like a second home. Students don’t feel pressure that we’re here to make them religious. We’re just here to give them a positive Jewish experience and we do offer ways to continue, if they want, like different programs in Israel, but we don’t push it on them; we just open our home and have them experience something positive like a Shabbat dinner or a regular dinner or a meeting or coffee.”
“Whether or not they were involved in Jewish life in high school, we try to show students that Judaism is fun,” says Rabbi Yosef Kulek, co-director with his wife, Dalia, of Chabad Chevra at University of Hartford since 2003. “If they’re going to keep involved in Judaism and stay connected, they have to understand that it’s more than services on Yom Kippur and that there’s so much to be proud of and so much to be excited about and so much to enjoy.”
Campus Chabad directors try to meet students where they are, both in terms of their Jewish identity and in response to personal needs. “Year to year, our response requires a lot of adaptability and listening to really understand what’s needed on campus at any particular period of time,” says Rabbi Levi Schectman, co-director with his wife, Chanie, of Chabad at Wesleyan since 2010. “It’s really important to listen and understand the needs and what you’re needed for in that particular moment. Even though there are certain things that change from year to year, the core stays the same: being there for students in terms of family, always open to them on Friday night.” Sometimes, the Schectmans are approached by students concerned with anti-Israel activity on campus. More recently, the couple is more aware of mental-health issues among the student population.
“We’re just seeing how everyone is doing and checking in and smiling at them and reaching out,” Rabbi Schectman says. “We might set up a table and hand out honey sticks and wish students a sweet day. We can’t undervalue these small interactions we have with one another.”
These gestures are not lost on students like senior Sam Wachsberger, who has deepened his Jewish identity while on campus.
“Chabad at Wesleyan is tasked with a very difficult sell,” he says. “On a hyper-liberal and secular campus, Chabad is challenged with representing long held tradition and religious belief to students who are trying to escape just that. I would know, I was one of those students. As a kid brought up in the Jewish day school world, Wesleyan was the first non-Jewish school I attended. When I arrived, I was more than excited to be free from the rituals and belief systems I had been so opposed to. And now, Chabad is a mainstay of my week and a crucial part of my campus experience. Be it the programs offered around campus, the shiurs during lunch, or the moments of pro-Israeli solidarity, Chabad has provided me with a facet of Judaism that long has eluded me. It has offered me a place to embrace the culture and experience without the rigidity and judgment that plagued my earlier education. I think the ultimate irony of this situation encapsulates just what Chabad is and does; the most connected I have ever felt to my Jewish identity has been at the only non-Jewish school I have attended. To me, that says it all.”
University of Hartford senior Eve Rosenthal avoided the weekly Chabad Chevra information table until her sophomore year, but once she enrolled in Chabad’s “Sinai Scholars” program, she was hooked.
“I am regularly astounded by Rabbi and Dalia’s unshaken dedication to Jewish life on campus,” she says. “Having Chabad as a home away from home makes me feel safe, loved, and for the first time in a long time, faithful to my Jewish roots. Without Chabad’s influence, I would likely have never taken my Birthright trip to Israel, a trip that knocked the air out of my lungs and solidified, for me, a Jewish future. I struggle to imagine the person I would be today if not for the Kuleks’ selflessness, commitment, and perhaps most importantly, love. I now understand that I am at my utmost capacity to love and be loved when I am embracing my Jewish identity.”
Fellow University of Hartford senior Liel Asulin says that he has become “more observant, more spiritual, and more aware of my Jewish identity in general” since walking through the doors of Chabad Chevra as a freshman. “I think the last point is what really happens to most students: rarely do we leave with profound insights into the Torah or a deeply enlightened understanding of the world. Usually, we’re simply more aware of who we are as Jews and what that means, and I think that is a powerful thing. The Kuleks take students with varying levels of connectedness to their Judaism and encourage them to learn more about it and along the way, themselves.”
Yale senior Dale Tager sums up Chabad’s “home away from home” effect. “It consistently taps into my Jewish soul and brings me closer to my fellow Jewish people at home and throughout the world,” he says. “It challenges me to be the best Jew I can possibly be; remembering my roots and strengthening the connections with other Jewish people on campus and the one and only Jewish State, Israel – all while making lifelong friendships in the process. It goes beyond Shabbat dinners and extends to every Jewish holiday, giving a perfect combination of social activities with a large hint of meaningful dialogues between Rabbi Shua and other Jewish scholars that come to enrich every student’s intellectual outlook. … As a senior looking back at the past four years, my Yale experience would never have been complete without the beautiful Chabad house housing so many beautiful people. It enriched my life in ways very hard to put into words.”
As detailed by the Hertog Study researchers, Chabad’s post-college impact is the true test of its work with students. All four Connecticut campus rabbis maintain relationships with alumni, through regular phone conversations and in-person visits, and by hosting alumni gatherings on and off campus. Alumni will ask their college rabbis and rebbetzins to be part of lifecycle events like weddings and baby-namings, and often return to campus to share a Shabbat meal or holiday celebration.
“Today, eight years after graduation, I am still friends with many people from Chabad, including my soon-to-be-wife and also my best man,” says Evan Moskowitz, University of Hartford ’08. “While Chabad didn’t turn me into an Orthodox Jew, as many people wrongly accuse them of trying to do, it helped me become more observant, in my own way. While I don’t do it weekly, I do enjoy keeping Shabbat. I have gone to many Shabbatons in Crown Heights and I always look forward to going back. I keep kosher in the house, and go to as many Shabbat services as I can. … One of the biggest lessons I learned was that no matter how intimidating a situation looks, don’t be afraid, don’t judge, and put all preconceived notions aside.”
Sometimes students come full circle. University of Hartford 2013 alumni Eric Maurer and Rebecca Bader met at the campus Hillel house and became regulars at Chabad Chevra. Last August, they were married by Chabad Chevra’s Rabbi Yosef Kulek and given the traditional sheva brachot – seven blessings — by Dalia Kulek, who also befriended the couple’s families. Now the Maurers are back in West Hartford, where Eric directs Jewish Teen Connection of Greater Hartford and Rebecca heads the preschool program at the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield.
“Our relationship with the Kulek family has only grown since we graduated from the university,” says Eric. “We still are invited over for Shabbat dinners and hang out with their children. Rabbi Kulek helped us put mezuzahs on our doors when we moved into our new home. Together, my wife and I are trying to build the type of home that we want – one that is based on Jewish values and love. …Our experience with Chabad on campus invigorated our Jewish identity and showed us the ruach – the energy – that we can bring into our Judaism.”
Rabbi Yosef Kulek of Chabad Chevra at the University of Hartford sums up Chabad’s approach and success in one word: Love.
“I know that sounds cliché but it’s really true,” he says. “Between my wife, Dalia, and myself and our seven children, we’re able to provide students with a family model. The model of most Chabad houses starts at the Shabbat table and everything spreads from there. I don’t think people realize how diverse and non-denominational we are and how open and pluralistic we are. We truly don’t judge and our mission is not to make you look like us but rather, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, to focus on the 90 percent of what we have in common versus the 10 percent of what’s different.”