A professor's view of Chabad on Campus
My time as a college student involved decision making. My Jewish observance was no exception. I had grown up in a traditional Conservative Jewish home. My four sisters and I attended Hebrew school beginning at age four through the eighth grade, and celebrated our b’not mitzvah. I attended Shabbat services several times a month and learned to read Hebrew, lead prayers, and take an active role in synagogue life. We had lots of Jewish friends in the neighborhood and at public school. At home, we kept kosher, enjoyed Friday evening Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, a sukkah in our backyard and candle lighting each night of Chanukah. At college, most of my classmates were not Jewish and I was anxious to fit into my new environment. Should I attend synagogue? Continue keeping kosher? Go to class on the High Holidays? While I was not alone in my questioning, my fellow Jewish students and I approached these questions differently. I was uncertain what role Judaism would play in my life in this new, unfamiliar environment.
These 30-year-old memories from my college days returned to me as I read the recently released study, Chabad on Campus, by Brandeis University professor Mark Rosen. Rosen and his colleagues set to learn about Chabad on Campus International (www.chabad.edu), an organization with over 200 full-time centers nationwide. Led by Orthodox rabbis and their wives trained by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Chabad on Campus centers seek to be a “home away from home” for Jews on campus and offer a wealth of social, educational, and spiritual programs.
Rosen et al. find that few students served by Chabad on Campus are raised Orthodox. Most students first come to Chabad for the meals, served on Shabbat and during the week, and the socializing. The rabbis and rebbetzins directing these Chabad on Campus centers are warm and welcoming, regardless of the students’ level of Jewish observance or frequency of attendance at Chabad functions. No one is turned away nor is anyone charged dues or fees for their participation.
Rosen and his colleagues found that Chabad has a lasting impact on college students. Those taking part are more likely to express a stronger Jewish identity and participate in Jewish rituals later in life at higher rates compared to non-participating Jewish students. The greatest impact is experienced among those raised Reform or culturally Jewish compared with those raised in a more traditional Jewish environment. It is rare for students taking part in Chabad on Campus activities to change denominations, although a large percentage of students maintain contact with Chabad co-directors after graduation.
Why would Orthodox rabbis and rebbetzins, themselves raised in Orthodox homes and often in Orthodox communities with active synagogues, whose parents are rabbis and rebbetzins, move to college campuses where nearly all of the people with whom they will interact possess no such qualities?
I learned the answer when I read Sue Fishkoff’s “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch” (Schocken Press, 2005). Fishkoff notes that the Chabad movement emphasizes outreach to Jews through their emissaries, many of whom end up on college campuses serving Jewish college students. Chabad emissaries, driven by a deep love and concern for their fellow Jew, anchor themselves into the college communities that they serve.
I have served as the UCF Chabad faculty adviser since its inception 10 years ago, in early 2007. I came into the role when Rabbi Sholom Dubov (co-director, Chabad of Greater Orlando), called to ask if I would meet with his friends, Rabbi Chaim and Rebbetzin Rivkie Lipskier, who had recently moved to town to found a Chabad on Campus center near the UCF campus.
As UCF is the second largest university in the U.S., it enrolls one of the largest Jewish student populations in the nation. Founding a Chabad on Campus center would be a monumental undertaking.
Like many students served by the Lipskiers, I came to work with them even though I lacked an Orthodox background, and questioned whether I could support them as my approach to Judaism was so different from theirs. Yet the Lipskiers and I developed a strong friendship over the last decade. Our bond goes deeper than just being the Chabad at UCF faculty adviser. Their kindness, hospitality, and charisma is magnetic, and their drive to connect with Jewish students is admirable. They ensure that every student they cross paths with is in good spirits. They will even deliver chicken soup to a student with a cold —just ask.
My observation of how the Lipskiers manage their outreach to primarily non-Orthodox students reflects Professor Rosen’s findings. Shabbat, holiday and festival observance at their home and elsewhere is provided to hundreds of students (even if it means hosting 770 students for Shabbat dinner in a large tent on the UCF Memory Mall after which they walk the six miles home). As well, the Lipskiers are regular fixtures on campus. They distribute literature, smiles, and kosher treats in front of the Student Union on Wednesdays, offer kosher food to passersby while tailgating on weekday football game days, offer classes while serving “Pasta and Parsha” lunch on campus, and join the larger Orlando community for the Mega Challah Bake. The Lipskiers support secular student efforts as well. Thanks to their ubiquitous presence on Facebook, I have learned that they will spend their late Saturday nights after Shabbat supporting Children’s Miracle Network dance marathoners struggling to stay on their feet or attending UCF home football games.
The Chabad on Campus study reveals that such efforts matter to the future of Jewish life in the United States. At a time when studies such as the 2013 Pew Research Center “Portrait of Jewish Americans” show that the percentage of Jews identifying as “no religion” is much higher among younger Jews (32 percent among those born since 1980) than older Jews (7 percent among those born 1927 and before), the Chabad on Campus study shows that Chabad plays an important role in reversing that trend. Rosen and his colleagues find that, despite what appears to be an odd combination of Orthodox couples living and working near secular college campuses and reaching out to young Jews who are questioning their own Jewish identity and practice, Chabad presence on college campuses achieves a positive effect with lasting results.
Terri Susan Fine, Ph.D. is professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. She teaches courses on American politics, religion and politics, civil rights, political psychology and women and politics. She is the recipient of 10 teaching awards and four professional service awards. Her publications have appeared in several academic journals and books. In the Jewish community she has twice been awarded the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando’s Community Relations Awards. She is currently serving as a consultant to the Florida Department of Education Task Force on Holocaust Education to support the development of middle school civics resource materials focusing on Holocaust education.