Chabad Houses have grown in number for the 2015 academic year. An impressive 19 new centers on college campuses have opened across America, including three in Southern California including, Pierce College, The California Institute of Technology (Caltech)and University of California, Riverside You can now buy a kosher sandwich and snack at most colleges and Jewish learning is more accessible and affordable than ever.
It’s not easy providing meaningful programs at colleges that have very few Jewish students, but the number of students is higher at certain campuses and this keeps Chabad rabbis plenty busy. Hillel Houses also abound and offer a certain flavor of Jewish learning and support. Deeper ingrained in the student’s lives are the Chabad Rabbis who have made undergraduate outreach their life mission.
The growth of Chabad Houses has been exponential since the 1940’s when the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, sent students to Californian universities. The first Chabad House at UCLA was opened in the late sixties which led the way for a network of campus rabbis. Rabbi Joshua Gordon speaks nostalgically of his assignment as the first Chabad representative dispatched to the San Fernando Valley in 1973 to provide outreach on the local campuses.
At the 2015 Chabad of the Valley Banquet Rabbi Gordon shared his memories, “For three days out of every week, I would single-handedly man tables on the grounds of the CSUN, Pierce College and Valley College campuses, where I would spend hours conversing and facilitating mitzvah observance for hundreds of Jewish students on a daily basis. Even to this day, I run into people, most of them now grandparents, who recall those encounters with me during their college years, and the indelible impressions those made upon their minds and hearts going forward.”
Today, the viability of many campus Chabad Houses has been a direct result of the support by major philanthropist, Mr. George Rohr, who has provided seed money to allow some college centers to purchase a building where the events can be held and where the campus Rabbi can live. Still, the monthly budget has to be raised by the college rabbis mostly from parents and alumni. The one thing that college students still don’t have, is an income. Fortunately, this year the Jewish Federation has started to recognize the activity of Chabad on campus and has awarded grants for certain activities.
Unlike a community shul, the college synagogues fill a variety of needs and goals. Rabbi Chaim and Raizel Brook run the programs at California State University, Northridge,(CSUN). He proudly notes that, “We have around 3,500 Jewish students so it’s a good model and for many kids, this is their first opportunity to learn and enjoy their Jewishness so our programs are very important.”
Still, Rabbi Brook explains, “It’s very hard to set goals for our college events. We’re not on a path to make all Jewish students observant. We know there is room for growth in their Yiddishkeit and perhaps they will understand and appreciate the greater meaning of kosher food and Shabbat observance. Everyone has to take a step forwards as they mature and Jewish observance guides us through the joys and pitfalls of our lives. Students reach out to us as they deal with the stress, sometimes perceived, sometimes real, but all too often life events which are dramatic for young adults in college. We help them grow in their understanding of the ways that Jewish values and lifestyle can guide them.”
Rabbi Brook explained that the most popular event at all college campuses is the Shabbat dinner which is open to all. “These are a fun and meaningful way for students to connect with fellow Jews their age. Many of our students have experienced little of Jewish observance and others are far from home so there is much socializing. College is not the time of their life that kids focus on religion, but they are on the dating scene and it is a formative and crucial time to make important life choices. Our Shabbat dinner’s often see 100 kids so it’s a vibrant and noisy event.”
The most popular campus learning program is called Sinai Scholars. The class lasts a semester and it’s a weekly two hour meeting. The students look at fundamental themes of Judaism and when they complete the course they receive a scholarship which brings students back for more. Rabbi Brook explained the atmosphere, “Recently, we spent a healthy amount of time working out which were the Ten Commandments. It was animated, but we got there!”
Rabbi Dov Wagner is the Campus Rabbi at the University of Southern California, (USC) where there are approximately 3,000 Jewish students. Some are from observant homes and want to grow their Yiddishkeit. Most need to be reached on an individual basis because their Judaism is not a major element of their identity and it is though college programs, trips and travels to Israel that their Jewishness is drawn out of them.
Rabbi Wagner explained that his courses and lectures are important in teaching the students how to find accurate information on the current political situation in Israel. A popular class right now is a series on, Israel, the Land and the Spirit. “This class takes place as a Tuesday night dinner-and-discussion and brings a new understanding of the challenges facing Israel. Students care about Israel as part of their Judaism. Our role is to turn an apathetic attitude to Jewish identity into something meaningful. We have several years to work with our students until they graduate. It’s always sad when they graduate, but by then, I know their soul is conscious of its connection to Israel.”
In 2011 a documentary was filmed at UCLA. The interviewer asked students to identify Hamas and repeatedly identified the terrorist organization as Hummus, the chickpea dip. Have things changed today? Ignorance of the political situation facing Israel and world Jewry is still an issue.
Rabbi Wagner knows the importance of educating the USC students. “Recently while speaking at a Jewish fraternity house – we have two of them – I explained how the United Nations has condemned Israel more times than all the other countries in the world combined. Students don’t know this and they were surprised to hear it. I have to show the untruths behind the endless anti-Israel rhetoric.”
Rabbi Wagner explained that he teaches spiritual awareness by showing the practical benefits. “What it comes down to, is why do we care? I explain that what it means to be a Jew is to be part of B’nei Yisroel and to keep the mitzvot of the Torah, which brings the spiritual to our world.”
At the start of October, Rabbi Wagner and his wife organized a Shabbat for 500. They were delighted with the turnout of 600 students. “It’s a lot of hard work to make a great dinner for this many people in our house, but my wife is excellent at doing this and she baked enough challah for everyone! Any successful program is immersive and it is by immersing students in Jewish celebration, learning and knowledge that we see life changes taking place.”
Another student event which creates a step towards Jewish identity was championed this past weekend of October 23rd, Cheshvan 10-12.This was the Shabbaton that brought more than 1,000 Jewish full-time students from US campuses nationwide and overseas, to visit Chabad in Crown Heights, New York. The colorful, vibrant experience created a uniquely memorable cultural and educational experience. This year’s event was focused on leadership skills and included a spirited Shabbat dinner, a heap of discussions, important networking, a Saturday night mega event and concert, educational workshops, tours of New York City and more.
The Shabbaton offered learning programs on Jewish ethics, advanced Talmudic law, inspirational workshops and mystical insights. This year also offered a new Grad Track program for older students, which added a social event for the older crowd, along with a business and relationship discussion. The organizers made the annual event into the ultimate buffet of Jewish education. Once again, philanthropists George and Pamela Rohr were the lead financial donors, while there were others besides. The entire cost for a student to attend the Shabbaton was a token $36 fee, plus their air ticket.
Those who made the effort to attend were thrilled with the experience that built new friendships and created a stronger understanding of their Jewishness. Despite this, Rabbi Brook confessed the complex problems with getting students to attend. Not only did they have to come up with the cost of the air ticket, but they had to make up classes on Friday and take the night flight on Sunday to make their Monday morning classes. Chabad on Campus has its work cut out.