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College Kids Need Personal Attention, Says Study of Chabad Shabbat Programs

May 26, 2006
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Jewish college students crave meaningful Jewish experiences, personal attention from their rabbis and a “home away from home,” according to a new study of Chabad Shabbat programs on campus. The semester-long research project, led by Barry Chazan of Hebrew University, is the first in-depth examination of Chabad campus activities. It’s the latest in a slew of recent studies of young Jews and what they’re looking for Jewishly.

The 112 Chabad Houses affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in this country serve more than 179 U.S. campuses. Around the world, 238 campuses are served.

Each Chabad House is run by an emissary couple, a Chabad rabbi and his wife, who open their homes to students for classes, meals, holiday celebrations and informal gatherings.

Twenty-two Friday evening programs conducted by Chabad at five U.S. campuses were observed last fall. Students were asked why they attend Chabad Shabbat meals and how they feel about the experience, in order to help Chabad campus emissaries develop better programs, and to model the experience for other Jewish campus groups.

Key findings indicate that, rather than running away from Judaism during their college years, many students seek spirituality and the comforts of a family-centered Shabbat experience, and respond well to a Jewish educator who gives them personal, individualized attention.

Students pointed to the personality of the Chabad emissary as the most significant and influential part of the total experience, mentioning how important it was for them to be remembered by name, brought into a family’s home and treated with respect by an adult.

New York philanthropist George Rohr, speaking for the Chabad on Campus National Foundation, said the study will primarily benefit Chabad campus emissaries looking to improve their programming, but he suggested that Hillel directors and other Jewish educators, as well as members of Jewish communities near campuses, can learn from it.

“Anybody who has a home and can expose college kids to a Shabbat family experience on campus can do this,” he said.

Researcher Chazan said he became “very taken with the shluchim,” or Chabad emissaries, as the study progressed.

“Jewish professionals today have come to serve the Jewish people and the Jewish community, as opposed to being an educator that tries to touch the souls of individuals,” he said. In contrast, the Chabad emissaries he met “do what they do from the core of their being, they’re total personalities who do this out of a deep belief in and respect for the individual.”

The study also suggested that episodic Jewish experiences such as a Shabbat program can have profound impact on a student’s Jewish identity.

“Young adulthood is more episodic than it once was,” Chazan said. “Sometimes the Jewish model is too locked into the ‘full menu,’ the total scenario — marry a Jewish partner, have two or three kids, send them to day school, summers in Israel.”

He suggested that Chabad and other Jewish campus groups might branch out from Shabbat and use other Jewish rituals and holidays to reach young Jews in the same way.

At a May 25 panel discussion in Manhattan, Chabad emissaries from the five campuses studied emphasized the non-programmatic nature of their Shabbat “programs” as the key to their success.

“When students come to the Chabad House, they don’t want another academic presentation,” said Esther Goldstein, emissary at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “They come for the casual setting. You don’t realize how much you can learn informally.”

Chazan agreed, saying that Chabad campus outreach, which focuses on modeling a real-life experience, may be more effective than a class or program. “In many ways, the best thing educators can do is let Shabbos happen and get out of the way,” he suggests. “It may be something very deep that young people are looking for.”

The episodic nature of Chabad outreach is based on Chabad’s understanding of the precious nature of each mitzvah, several of the shluchim explained.

Noting that campus rabbis have “many short interactions” with the students they serve, and sometimes never see the same students again, Rabbi Hirsh Zarchi, Chabad emissary at Harvard University, said, “In the professional Jewish world, these interactions don’t register, but we think we’ve touched something.”

Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven Cohen, part of a panel that will discuss the study’s findings Wednesday afternoon, believes the research has relevance for any Jewish educator. Whereas Chazan “doubts” that a non-observant educator could present students with an authentic Shabbat experience, Cohen, who teaches at the Reform movement’s flagship rabbinical seminary, says that it not so.

“There’s no one right kind of educator, just as there is no one kind of student,” he said. “Teach who you are as a Jew, but be the Jew who you want to teach. You can present your version of Jewish authenticity in a home environment that is personal and welcoming and genuine, that allows for individual autonomy.”

Like Chazan, he believes that discrete, meaningful Jewish experiences can have profound impact.

“In our postmodern age, Jews of all ages want to claim Judaism and make Judaism for themselves. This kind of intervention presents young people with a taste of a Jewish way of life, and they can then decide whether they want to appropriate it for themselves.”

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