Friday, November 04, 2005

Chabad on campus: A haven for students…a question mark for Hillel

By Judie Jacobson

It was 11 p.m. on a Friday night in mid-September and Pam Newman had just finished enjoying the weekly Shabbat meal with 80 or so students at the Hillel House on the campus of UConn at Storrs. Then Newman, the organization’s director, gathered up a bunch of students and headed over to the school’s new Chabad@UCONN outpost just, as she put it, “to hang out and say hello.” As Newman was leaving Chabad at 12:30 a.m., another group of students was arriving. The next morning Rabbi Shlomo Hecht, the new executive director of Chabad@UCONN, joined the Hillel House minyan, then returned again in the evening for the community Havdalah service.
And that’s the way it’s been ever since Hecht, his wife and two young sons, arrived in Storrs this past summer, and Hillel students helped them move in: Hillel students bake challahs on Thursday night and send a couple over to Chabad for Shabbat. Hecht goes food shopping in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, and picks up a few things for Hillel, too. The two Jewish groups ran separate programs for the holidays…but came together for a blow-out Simchat Torah celebration n as they did last year for Purim when Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky of Chabad East of the River ran the program.
Far from feeling compromised or in competition with one another, both Newman and Hecht see only plusses in the other’s presence on campus.
“We do most of our programs separately but there is no duplication of services because Chabad brings a whole different flavor,” explains Newman, who describes her relationship with her Chabad counterpart as “absolutely amazing.”
While Hillel’s main goal is “connecting Jewish students to each other and to their Jewish roots,” says Newman, “Everything (Chabad) does n whether it’s social programs, holiday programs, etc. n is focused on promoting Torah mitzvot. So it takes a different dimension and offers students different options for Jewish life. As long as it helps students grow and connect with other Jewish students we are thrilled.”
Hecht, too, sees Chabad as a complement to Hillel on campus.
“There are between 1500 and 1800 Jewish students on campus,” he notes. “Hillel can’t possibly reach out to everyone. Our focus is outreach n to find every Jew on campus and get them involved.”
In addition, notes Hecht, who operates Chabad@UCONN out of the just-off-campus condominium he lives in with his family, “We have different styles. My home is a home for every Jewish kid on campus. Hillel House is open and welcoming, but it is not a home. It is not a family.”
Hillel’s backyard
Not all Hillel chapters, however, enjoy so close and constructive a relationship with their campus Chabads. Some feel in competition with Chabad, whose often assertive outreach techniques target a constituency that Hillel claims as its own. Others don’t feel threatened by Chabad n but neither do they feel any innate alliance with the organization or any sense of a shared mission. As such, the two organizations often operate on campus as two completely unconnected entities.
Given the relatively few North American campuses that have established Chabad houses, the issue of friction between Chabad and Hillel would seem, at least on the surface, to be academic (no pun intended). Especially when one considers that Chabad has just over 80 full- time campus outposts and Hillel chapters number more than 500. The point becomes less moot, however, when one considers that Chabad, whose first campus house opened at UCLA in the 60s, has increased its campus presence by more than 100 percent during the past five years.
Simply put, Chabad is on the move n and one of the areas to which it is moving is Connecticut.
At UHA, first there was Chabad
Twenty-eight years ago, a young rabbi arrived in the town of West Hartford fresh from his previous post in the college town of Amherst, Mass. Not knowing anyone and wanting to establish an initial connection, he did what came naturally. He made inroads into the community of Jewish students on the campus of the nearby University of Hartford (UHA), and he went to work planning programs and activities.
Before long, Rabbi Joseph Gopin succeeded in reaching out to the broader Jewish community as well. Nonetheless, his commitment to the UHA students never waned and, as his own congregation grew, he maintained a Chabad presence on the campus by passing on the assignment to subsequent Chabad rabbis.
Somewhere along the line, community leaders approached Gopin with the notion of bringing Hillel to town. Gopin enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Hillel arrived, and Chabad continued to run a class on campus.
Following the arrival in 2000 of Rabbi Yosef Kulek, Chabad’s campus activities began to multiply n a matzoh bakery before Passover, megillah reading on Purim, a weekly program called Chat and Chew, a kosher dinner hour… all programs that were run either with Hillel or under its aegis.
Then, two years ago, several students approached Kulek with the notion of applying for status as an official campus group. In January 2005, Chabad Chevrah was officially recognized by UHA’s Student Government Association (SGA). A separate entity from Hillel, it has its own board of directors, provides its own funding, and runs its own programs.
“At first, the board of Hillel was completely opposed to the idea, because we are supposed to be the Jewish address on campus and we are supposed to serve everyone,” says Hillel’s director Sarah Laub. “Up until then Chabad was able to function within Hillel, so we thought it was inappropriate that they break off.”
Eight months after the fact, however, Laub sees things differently.
“The split-off of Chabad is part of a positive trend of trying to cater to the specific needs of students. For instance, Hillel used to have one Shabbat service that tried to please all students n Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. But no one was happy. Now, Hillel has Reform and Conservative services…and the Orthodox to Chabad. Then, all the students come together for dinner, including the Chabad students. Everyone is happier. It creates a lot less tension.”
Kulek isn’t surprised.
“Chabad and Hillel complement one another,” he says. “Hillel provides important and wonderful social opportunities for Jewish students to meet and mingle. Chabad’s primary focus on campus is to cater to the educational and religious needs of students in a fun, open-minded and non-judgmental manner.”
The two groups describe their relationship as “cordial.” Though they do not co-host programs, they also try hard not to program against one another.
“Tensions do arise between the two groups,” admits Laub, “but we have come to a clear understanding that if there are any problems we talk directly to one another, so that we can keep things from getting inflamed. It makes for a peaceful Jewish community on campus.”
At Yale, ships pass in the night
Amy Aaland, executive director of the Slifka Center/Hillel at Yale, describes her organization’s relationship with the university’s new Chabad as “evolving.”
“We are committed to pluralism and believe the more expressions of Judaism the better,” she explains.
In fact, evolution is how Chabad came to be on the campus of Yale in the first place.
Shua Rosenstein was a rabbinical student in New Haven when he and his study partner attended a Simchat Torah party hosted by Yale’s Chai Society. There, they got to talking with two Yale sophomores, with whom they joined forces to start an informal student organization that would ultimately grow into Chabad at Yale.
The next week the two students brought three friends who, the following week, brought three more friends. Before they knew it, Rosenstein was hosting 40 or 50 students every Friday night. Soon, they added Monday night football, with Torah study during half time…poker nights with fine cigars, mixed in with Torah study…etc.
After two years, Rosenstein and company rented a larger apartment off-campus to accommodate their burgeoning group.
“We called the group ‘3M’ because that was the apartment number…and because it gave it a secretive touch, which at Yale was very important,” he recalls.
It wasn’t long before 3M became a buzz word on campus. Soon, the group was hosting events for other groups, like Yale Friends of Israel. 3M became the place to be.
In 2003, the group purchased an old house next to campus. It is the home of Chabad at Yale, The Daniel Center n in recognition of the philanthropist Robert Daniel, who helped fund the purchase.
Rosenstein, who in the interim married and left the community for a year while the group was led by two other rabbinical students, returned this past June with his wife to take over administration of Chabad at Yale.
“We’re in the process of registering with Yale for official status as a student group,” he says.
While Chabad has no relationship with the SlifkaCenter/Hillel, says Rosenstein, “I’ve met with (Slifka Center chaplain) Rabbi (James) Ponet and I told him my plans. He is fully supportive. We are not targeting students who would go to Slifka or the Chai Society. We are going to Jewish people on campus who aren’t affiliated and we’re giving them a good way of connecting with Judaism. It hasn’t taken away from his constituency and we haven’t gone after his donors either. So we’re not competition.”
Adds Rosenstein, “There are about 2,500 Jewish students on campus. A little more than 100 go to Slifka…about 25 go to the Chai Society. That leaves about 2,300 Jews on campus who aren’t going anywhere. That’s who we want to target.”
Can’t we all just get along?
According to Dr. Richard Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, “On college campuses in particular, Chabad has involved itself in issues of kosher food and programming that concern students who are trying to maintain a semblance of traditional Jewish life on campus. While this is meritorious, it often runs the risk of conflicting with the traditional Jewish life (chaplaincy) set up on campuses or already existing Hillel organizations that have historically run these areas of campus life.”
Nowadays, notes Freund, with most Hillels no longer under the directorship of rabbis, and with rabbis from surrounding communities no longer able to provide regular spiritual and religious interaction with college students, “Chabad representatives on campus, in the main, are rabbis whose main directive is spiritual, which is important in the hectic student life. So it is hard to say that they are not providing an important service for the students.”
Nonetheless, says Freund, “it can be confusing for students, the university administration, the faculty and ultimately the parents of students.”
Regardless of their relationship, notes UConn’s Newman, Hillel and Chabad must keep the students’ best interests at heart.
“If friction exists between the two organizations, students may feel that they are betraying one if they also take part in the activities of the other. The bottom line is that no student should ever feel that he or she should have to choose between two Jewish organizations.”
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