Sunday, January 15, 2006

Conveying New Vigor

Chabad is bringing enthusiasm to Judaism, revitalizing one of the world's oldest religions.

By: Tony Chiorazzi
Issue date: 1/13/06 Section: Lifestyle

Media Credit: Ryan Schuster | Daily Trojan

Meet the new look of cool on college campuses today: black suit, buttoned white shirt, long side-burns and a beard. They're not rock stars, movie stars or sports stars, but they are the new stars on the religious college scene.

Rabbi Dov Wagner is orthodox and leader of the Chabad Jewish Student Center, a charismatic Jewish organization on campus. Fifteen years ago, there were only 25 full-time Chabad Student Centers throughout the United States; today there are 85, with more than 200 campuses served by a Chabad Center. What does Wagner attribute to the explosive growth of this orthodox-based college organization on mostly secular campuses?

"Students are receptive to Chabad because people are looking for something real," he said.

And part of that something real is keeping it personal. In fact, Wagner invites students to his home every Friday night to pray and celebrate Shabbat (or Sabbath), the Jewish day of rest, with his own family. That's because the USC Chabad Center - a refurnished Victorian home just off the Row - is also the residence of Wagner, Runya (his wife) and three children: Mushky, 5; Menachem, 3; and Shneur, 1.

Shabbat at the USC Chabad House is always a grand event. You can count on a five-course meal, singing, laughter and plenty of warm conversation every Friday night of the school year at the USC Chabad House, said Samuel Zidovetzki, a junior majoring in neuroscience.

"The Wagners really make everyone feel like part of the family," he said.

"And sometimes, we don't get through celebrating (Shabbat) until one in the morning," Wagner said. In short, he said, Chabad and Chassidic Judaism are about celebrating the joy, spirituality and passion of Judaism. Chabad, for example, doesn't see praying as an obligation, but as an opportunity to meet new people, to sing out and get excited about the special way that Judaism connects with God, Wagner said. For instance, during the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot (commemorating the 40 years Jews wandered in the desert), Wagner spent time with students engaging in torah dancing, a ritual where men repeatedly circle around a table with Torahs (Jewish bibles) on it, joyously singing, dancing and praying.

Recognizing Chabad's passion for Jewish ritual and tradition might be one way to understand why Chabad is enjoying the success it is on college campuses today, said Thomas Ward, professor of anthropology. Ward said that our secular society has partly lost its deep appreciation for ritual and tradition. But these things are important, Ward said. They offer spiritual meaning and a way for people to connect with something time-honored and greater than themselves, and for a lot of secular young people today these things are increasingly appealing, he said.

Newsweek noted in its Aug. 29-Sept. 5, 2005, issue: "Orthodox Judaism, of which (Chassidic) are a branch, is on the rise among young Jews who trade Friday-night dances and shrimp egg foo yung for a more intense religious experience."

Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion, said he agrees that Chabad offers a particular sense of vitality to Judaism, but cautions that Chabad doesn't have the monopoly on Jewish vitality.

"Reform and conservative Judaism can have vitality and passion too," he said.

A common misconception about Chabad is that it is only for orthodox students. Nothing could be further from the truth, Zidovetzki said. The goal of Chabad is to reach out to students from every branch of Judaism - Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative - who want to learn more about their faith.

In fact, about 80 percent of students who participate in Chabad events are not orthodox, Wagner said.

Jason Goldman, a junior majoring in psychology, said that he also attends Chabad events for the rich sense of Jewish tradition and culture plus the special eagerness of Rabbi Dov and his wife to interact with students, "and I am also president of Hillel (the other major Jewish organization on campus)," Goldman said. "I have my feet in both communities."

After checking out Chabad for three weeks, Zak Hammond, a freshman majoring in cinema-television production, said he could see Chabad as his new spiritual home.

"There is a spark of true spirituality and excitement at Chabad that I have not found anywhere else," said Hammond, a member of a reform-conservative temple in Michigan.

Hammond said the appeal of Chabad for him is that it is heartfelt and that those who are involved deeply care and value Jewish culture and tradition. Hammond said other Jewish organizations often tend to be overly accommodating, trying too hard to make everyone feel welcome, but in reaching out to everyone, they have been marginalized and have lost part of that intimate spark or passion that gives Judaism its distinctiveness.

And part of the passion that Chabad has for Judaism is seen in how some members dress. Chabad men sport dark suits, long side burns, full beards, yarmulkes and tzitzit (fringes).

"We dress according to Jewish law and out of modesty," said Mendy Avtzon, a visiting Chabad rabbinical student from New York.

"Sometimes, though, it can be scary for people when they see how we dress," Avtzon said. "But once they get to know us, it has a positive effect on them; they realize that we are genuine."

Hammond agrees and said he once thought Chabad was just a bunch of men who wore black, had curly sideburns and spoke Hebrew - but he now thinks differently.

"They were so much more accepting than what I had been led to believe," he said. "And the fact that they dress and behave the way they do doesn't bother me - in fact, it makes them even more special."

Asked what he thought about being called the "men in black," Wagner said jokingly, "You can call me anything you like as long as you don't call me on Shabbat."

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