Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A logic of their own

Why is a religious group that is opposed to university setting up on campuses?
Nathan Jeffay
It is late afternoon on Friday. As if they had received some subliminal command, 30 undergraduates, postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers stop what they are doing and dash from their faculties at Cambridge University. There is nothing obvious uniting them. They span a variety of subjects, have disparate interests, and vary in appearance from the suited-and-boooted Darren Gower to the hippyish Pete Flemming, always bare-footed so he can "feel the texture of the ground".
They do, though, share a mentor, whom they are all heading to see. He is neither a cultural icon nor a political ideologue. And he is certainly not a revered academic; he never went to university. Rather, he is the local emissary of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hassidic sect that is gaining unprecedented popularity on British campuses.
Hassidic is the term for the mystical and deeply devout form of Judaism, each sect led by a single guru-like rabbi, that was born in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Most of its adherents take pride in the conviction that their practices, beliefs and language of choice (Yiddish) have changed little since then, and shun many aspects of modern culture.
This explains why the mentor in question, Rabbi Reuven Leigh, 28, an Essex boy who grew up in a non-observant home and became passionately religious in his teens, does not have a degree. But any Friday night at his home-cum-community-centre in Cambridge, you will find a sort of salon society under way, with the clinking of whisky glasses and rigorous discussion of every topic under the sun until the early hours of the morning. Some students will be back during the week, for study sessions or pastoral advice.
Campus confusion
Leigh admits it may seem incongruous that a sect that shuns university is among the fastest-growing organisations on campus. "Chabad does not promote attending universities as it argues that young people at the most impressionable time of their lives should devote their time to being well educated in their own heritage and culture," he says, adding that the campus atmosphere, with its marketplace of ideas and gender-mixing, creates "a confused environment that pulls young people further away from their roots'."
While the campus may not be Chabad's first choice for Jewish youngsters, it is determined to be there for them. If a marketplace of ideas exists, it will ensure that Orthodox Judaism is there, too, providing what Leigh calls "a place for intelligent people to ask challenging and intelligent questions about Judaism".
Leigh flatly rejects the idea that his group's objection to campus life means it should stay away from universities, or that its presence is somehow hypocritical. The fact that the group has concerns about campus life makes its presence all the more important, he believes.
This is why, with 85 centres at US universities and others around the world, it started establishing campus centres in the UK in 2001, and in the last academic year it has doubled its presence from three to six. In September it will open its seventh, at Leeds - the most popular campus for Jewish students - and is planning its eighth. This year in the UK, 2,000 students attended Chabad activities; worldwide the figure was 100,000.
What characterises Chabad's encounter with students is that both parties take each other at face value, and for this reason many of the students are open about their non-religiosity, and make no pretence that they intend to change.
Leigh is comfortable with this. The sect teaches that unfamiliarity with Judaism, rather than disaffection, accounts for low observance rates, and therefore representatives should give the faith exposure instead of trying to coerce people. "We give people the experiences; what they do with them is their choice," he says.
Tal-Chen Straussman, a 28-year-old from Jerusalem who is finishing an MPhil and starting a PhD in music, visits Leigh with her husband, Ithai, a postdoctoral researcher, and believes this other-worldliness is what attracts students.
"Everything else in this city revolves around the university. Chabad offers something fresh, a complete break," she says. "It offers something that is very definite in terms of religion, and is filled with spirituality, which is absent in the university setting. The fact that Chabad's Hassidim do not go to university is well-known and discussed among visitors, and actually helps create this popular sense of a visit there being a break. Students feel that if he had gone to university, he would be 'one of them'. Instead, he can offer something completely different."
This contrast between the lifestyles of the Hassidim and most of their visitors was one of the first things to strike 21-year-old Londoner Vika Evdokimenko four years ago, when she started attending Leigh's group as a fresher on her history degree. Her parents grew up in communist Russia where religion was forbidden. Chabad provided her first encounter with Judaism.
Evdokimenko is hoping to become both a film-maker and a musician. But encountering Leigh's wife, Rochel, made her recognise that "there is another way". At 25, Rochel is already a mother of four, as Orthodox Judaism places great religious value on having children.
"She is very happy with family life, not because she has abandoned a whole set of plans for this, but because it is what she wants to do," says Evdokimenko. "While I won't go out and have four kids, it gives a new perspective to the way I look at lifestyle choices. Also, while I don't plan to become religious, I now want to be part of the Jewish community."
Sarit Sivan, in her 30s, is a regular at Chabad's centre in Oxford, where she is a postdoctoral researcher in biomedics. She is keen to point out that the Hassidim may disapprove of university, but they do not shun intellectualism. "The Hassidic movement is very logical, and very challenging intellectually. It has a very sophisticated logic of its own," she says. "Visitors savour the encounter with a fresh mindset and novel lifestyle."
This encounter is what made Pete Flemming, 22, from Surrey, a frequent visitor to Leigh's home. His recently completed theology degree at Cambridge took him through many religious phases and left him "emphatically undecided". In a sense, Chabad served as an antidote to the endless questioning of the seminar room, and he enjoyed the Leighs' unshakable faith by proxy. "Given that I don't have a clear Jewish identity or position, it means a lot to go somewhere where I can participate in and enjoy a Jewish environment. I know that I will be welcomed wherever I am at personally," he says.
Joe Herman, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, is deeply involved in undergraduate activities and has a hectic social life."In most Orthodox environments, you would be expected to leave behind all your views of the world and adopt a single way of seeing things," he says. "This is never the case at Reuven's, and that's why I go."
Chabad also has its critics. The most vocal is Professor Geoffrey Alderman, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and prolific author on British Jewry. He believes that before Chabad's arrival, there was unity among Jewish students - those who got involved in Jewish activities went along to their local Jewish society, affiliated to both their university union and the Union of Jewish Students.
He is now "very aggrieved", considering Chabad's presence "an imposition" and accusing the sect of being "separatist". By establishing up its own centres, it is undermining the unity of the Jewish community on campus, he says.
"I am not just concerned with its infiltration on campus but concerned full stop," he says, citing the movement's lack of religious stability. He is referring to the fact that some members claimed their overall leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to be the messiah after his death in 1994 - a belief that endures in a small part of the sect.
But even an old foe of Chabad like Alderman does not accuse it of indoctrination, saying the sect's religious affiliations are clear to all.
It is rare for students to become Hassidim, but one of Leigh's followers, Darren Gower, a 20-year-old land economy student from Southend, is converting. Gower says that the apparent clash of cultures will not prevent Chabad's growth, because anything goes when you are at university, including an organisation that questions whether you should be there.
Even the sight of Gower, transformed over the course of a summer from a regular teenager to a Hassid in traditional dress, hardly raised an eyebrow. "In Cambridge there are so many odd people it makes no difference. One person came up to me and asked whether I was Jewish or just eccentric. I said 'probably both'."

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