Chabad On Campus

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:

  1. 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.
  2. No intellectual demands. No difficult Jewish studies courses or expectations for learning.
  3. Little social group pressure / cliques.
  4. Emotion stressed over intellect.
  5. 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.

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7 Comments

Filed under Chabad Theology, Jewish Leadership

7 responses to “Chabad On Campus

  1. Isa

    Hillel in my day,(1973 -1975) had lots of students about. Of course it certainly helped that the building was open till 10 pm. I used it as a place to put my lock on a free locker and to study. 10 + years later, this place was practically deserted it didn’y help that the doors closed at 5pm.
    Oh by the way Univ of Minnesota, Minneapolis Hillel house

  2. Eliezer Sneiderman

    Part of your analysis is correct. The Chabad House is seen as a home so that students who are uncomfortable with some aspect of the evening grin and bear it because they are guests. But, there is another aspect. The Chabad Rabbi and paradigm are so different than the students frame of reference that everyone, even the most strongly identified student, is on the same page. Whereas Hillel has students running things, so, if one doesn’t like a song or a style of prayer or something to that effect it is taken personally.
    But, I take issue to your contention that Chabad does not affect a large group of students. We see 500 different students a year at Chabad programs at the University of Delaware. This is close to %50 of the identified Jewish student body. If we had more room and resources we could reach even more.

  3. Neo-Conservaguy

    A Chabad Shliach enters the fray… this could get interesting.

  4. Eliezer –

    I understand where you’re coming from. But your experience is far fromm typical. Ask Menachem Schmidt. The average campus shaliach reaches fewer students than you and any impact he has is negligable for most of the students reached. The greatest success is and always has been student run, student controlled programing independent of “adult” community orgs, Chabad included.

  5. Josh

    Shmarya,

    You are old school. You are articulating the ancient style of Chabad on Campus. At the university that I attend Chabad has gota gourgeous building of their own, where hundreds of Jewish students feel free toa ttend when they want. We are very proud of the Shlichim here. The same applies to countless universities where there’s chabad presence, like binghamton, rutgers, etc….

  6. C-Girl

    I attended a Kabbalas Shabbos service & dinner at a major US university a few years ago when I was traveling for work. The service was wonderful, if sparsely attended. There was much heartfelt prayer, lots of singing- it was truly a joyous time.

    The weirdness began when everyone drifted downstairs for dinner. As soon as kiddush began, young guys came out of the woodwork, as did a lot of “unusual” older non-religious types, all who expressed a great deal of familiarity toward the rabbi. All proceeded to get stinking drunk along with the rabbi, who got louder and more confrontational as the night progressed. At one point, most of the students left to go see a movie on campus.

    This was way different from what I’d seen in my hometown, and I prayed that it wasn’t a typical campus Chabad experience.

  7. stillfrum

    C-Girl,
    It’s not atypical at all. And it gets worse. I witnessed the above behavior from Chabad at Rutgers University, even around and after the time that they built their huge replica of 770 on the campus. The Chabad rabbi got many kids drunk, including frat boys who thought it was cool to get drunk with the rabbi before they went to their parties on friday nights. On Simchas Torah, dancing outside the student center, the rabbi stood up on a garbage can and declared that the newly-deceased Rebbe was the moshiach. Not only that, they ostracized many people who had the nerve to participate in Hillel acitivities. My friends were told that they shouldn’t speak to me, that I was poisonous. Lies were spread about me. I found out that I was not the first, nor the last, to experience this treatment. The daughter of the Hillel rabbi in my time that later studied at Rutgers, (the rabbi has smicha from YU and the Mir Yeshiva) was told by the rebbetzin that she wasn’t welcome at Chabad House.

    No thanks to those experiences, I am an orthodox rabbi today. I didn’t need any kiruv organization to become frum, although the Orthodox Hillel rabbi was probably the biggest influence towards that path. The rabbi denies everything. Surprised? I doubt it.

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