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With Warmth and Hard Work, Chabad Grows Quickly on Campus

December 30, 2002
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At nearly 11 o’clock one Chanukah night, Rabbi Eitan Webb was still making his way through his list of holiday phone calls.

The new Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi at Princeton University even called those who had visited his home only once for Shabbat dinner, offering holiday wishes and gently asking about their lives.

Webb’s devotion offers a glimpse of Chabad’s signature method of outreach — personal attention and devotion to each Jew — that has attracted droves of followers around the country.

“At Chabad we use a phrase, ‘Every Jew is family,’ ” said Rabbi Hirsch Zarchi, 29, who heads the Chabad house at Harvard, where he is known to everyone as “Hirschy.”

As Jewish organizations of all stripes wonder how to get young people more involved in Jewish life, Chabad’s approach appears to be working.

Chabad is the “fastest-growing Jewish presence on campus,” said an official with one Jewish organization. “They have actually sent more students to Israel than any other organization, including Birthright and Hillel, which is clearly evidence of their reach and commitment.”

There currently are full-time Chabad houses on 61 college campuses across the United States. Chabad offers part- time programming at another 80 schools.

The fervently Orthodox movement is in the midst of a new push to open full-time houses on another 20 campuses. Of those, 12 already have opened.

The campuses targeted in the latest wave are those considered prestigious or that have large Jewish populations, and that have requested a Chabad house, according to Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, a member of Chabad’s executive committee and the Chabad representative at the University of Pennsylvania.

The rationale was to find students with leadership potential and groom them into Jewish leaders, said George Rohr, the philanthropist who funded the initiative.

“There are many worthy organizations who respond to the expressed needs of students who affiliate Jewishly. The reality, though, is that the vast majority of students are not Jewishly involved,” Rohr said. “Chabad emissaries are unparalleled in engaging this huge student body, creating welcoming entry points for them and empowering them with Jewish warmth and knowledge.”

In some cases, however, Chabad’s presence has sparked tension with other Jewish organizations on campus, particularly Hillel, said journalist Sue Fishkoff, author of a new book on Chabad outreach called “The Rebbe’s Army.”

“In general, where Chabad is small and there’s a very strong Hillel, there tends to be less of a conflict because Hillel does not see Chabad as that much of a threat,” she said.

But at Princeton University, the Center for Jewish Life — a joint program between the university and Hillel — decided not to include Chabad when it arrived on campus in November.

The center’s director, Rabbi James Diamond, said the decision had to do with Chabad’s “methodology,” which he called “confrontational.”

“There are many students who come in here who are very much searching for their Jewish identity, and they really are not comfortable being confronted, and they made that very clear to us,” Diamond said.

Chabad is “tolerant but not pluralistic,” Diamond said. “We are religiously tolerant and pluralistic.”

Expanding on a Hillel slogan, he said Hillel’s approach is to “meet the students where they are, not where we want them to be.”

Chabad’s mission, however, sounds similar: “To try to engage every single Jew on that campus and empower them with the knowledge and the experience of Judaism on their own terms,” in Zarchi’s words.

Students who attend Chabad programs generally confirm that approach.

“I don’t feel that a certain dogma or a certain way of viewing Judaism is imposed upon the Jewish students who go to this house,” said Emily Ludmir, 21, a Harvard senior who attended a Chabad day school in Orange County, Calif., but prays at a Reform congregation.

“It feels like a very open and welcoming place” and a “space where you can really feel like you could be Jewish,” she said.

Observers say the warmth of Chabad’s approach is central to its success on campus.

Emissaries are dispatched strategically as family units — a rabbi, his wife and children — to give visitors the experience of the roles, customs and intimacy of Jewish family life.

According to Rabbi Yossi Brackman, who opened a Chabad house at the University of Chicago this spring, “When you want to show people Judaism, you want to show them real-life Judaism, and you see that in the family.”

Early in his tenure as head of the movement, Chabad’s late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson “set his eye on the college student,” according to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries.

“The rebbe intuited that the energy and enthusiasm emblematic of youth, coupled with a student’s deep desire to find his or her life’s purpose, needs to be met with the care, respect and wisdom of our ageless Torah”s blueprint for life,” Kotlarsky said.

Chabad began outreach on campus with visiting yeshiva students in the early 1950s. The first official Chabad house opened at UCLA in 1969, and growth had been steady until the recent spurt of activity.

Chabad generally has been regarded as a “warm, accepting place to explore your Judaism,” Fishkoff said.

In contrast, some students say Hillel attracts a regular crowd of people, and those who come in just once or twice might feel “out of place,” Harvard’s Ludmir said.

But not everyone finds Chabad’s approach alluring.

“I couldn’t stand them,” said Jordan Davidson, 24, who graduated in 2000 from Brown University, where he said Chabad rabbis would pounce on students emerging from the cafeteria and student union.

“They would come right up to you and ask you if you were Jewish, and I had seen people say that they were Jewish and then get harassed by these people and then followed down the street, and that was really obnoxious to me,” Davidson said.

“The awful thing to me was saying that I wasn’t Jewish, just lying to them about my ethnicity because I didn’t want to be harassed and I didn’t want to be associated with these people,” Davidson said.

“While these guys are noble in their efforts, and I’m sure their cause is fantastic, their approach probably drives more people away than actually attracts people,” he said.

But proselytizing on campus is very unusual, Schmidt said.

“No one initiative can satisfy the needs and sensitivities of each individual student,” he said. “We provide a very wide array of programming so that each student can find his or her relationship with their heritage.”

On some campuses, Chabad’s growth has been remarkable.

In five years at Harvard, for example, Chabad’s premises have grown from a tiny, one-bedroom apartment into a 3,800-square-foot building with three floors.

The group also has made inroads among faculty. President Lawrence Summers has lit the Chabad menorah on campus, and law professor Alan Dershowitz acts as the liaison between Chabad students and faculty.

Many students say their connection to the group grows out of their friendship with Chabad’s rabbis, who see themselves as spiritual counselors.

Harvard’s Zarchi said he answers calls every day from students grappling with personal crises, including one student who called at 1 a.m. to talk about a problematic romance.

“You could just go, and it’s like a family,” said Julie Bernstein, 22.

Bernstein, who grew up in a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco and now works for a teen outreach program at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, held leadership positions in Hillel, Chabad and a pro-Israel group at the University of Southern California until she graduated this year.

“I think they really have mastered the experiential learning where you’re just sitting around a table and having a really good meal with friends and you’re learning,” Bernstein said. “They’re just the nicest, warmest, most welcoming people, and I like to think of them as friends as much as my rabbi.”

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