Gary Rosenblatt of the NY Jewish Week devotes his weekly column to the study commissioned by Chabad’s college campus arm. Like most Jewish community professionals with no hands-on experience working with college students, Rosenblatt gets it wrong. Chabad is successful (when they are successful) because of these factors:
- No spiritual demands. A student can come as little or as much as he desires, can practice as much or as little Judaism as he desires.
- No intellectual demands. No difficult Jewish studies courses or expectations for learning.
- Little social group pressure / cliques.
- Emotion stressed over intellect.
- Control without appearing dictatorial.
The fifth factor underlies the rest. A Chabad House is most often the home of the Rabbi and his family. Students are invited into this home, this private residence, for family events – Shabbos, Yom Tov, etc. A student doesn’t like some aspect of the day’s event? He’s much less likely to walk away, because the setting for the event is viewed as private.
Compare that to Hillel with its executive directors, program directors, support staff and public buildings – and Federation-supported budgets. Students in this setting expect and often demand to have a say in event planning, programs, and day-to-day operations, because they view Hillel as a Jewish community organization meant to serve them, and there for them to shape, mold and lead.
The problem is obvious. Most Hillel directors will not cede power to students. This limits student involvement and causes many students to disengage from Hillel because Hillel is viewed as a top-down community organization of adults whose mission to patronize and direct students. On the other hand, Chabad is viewed as some nice (if somewhat bizarre) young couple who invites students into their home and family life.
This model will always work. It will rarely grow large. It will rarely influence hundreds of students. But it will, week in and week out, influence those few students who partake of it.
The most successful model out there is the independent Jewish Student Union, run by and for students. When properly funded, such student unions attract more students and generate greater levels of commitment, at a cost far less than either Hillel or Chabad. Further, those student unions often use existing groups, including Chabad, as resources, using the Chabad rabbi as a speaker at a program or as a scholar-in-residence for a student run and led Shabbat meal.
But, like much else in organized Jewish life, it is not success that counts – it is affiliation and loyalty to the system, not something 18 year old students value or do well.