The Human Spirit: Share the spice

Why Chabad is successful on American campuses.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
We've become accustomed to hearing exotic Chabad stories. In Peru, Lubavitchers hiking up the Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu bring kosher food and religious services to Israeli backpackers. In Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City they make a Seder. But what happens when hassidim in black hats and scruffy beards, or hassidic women in wigs and long sleeves, set up shop on the home turf for philosophy, science and skepticism? How does asking "are you Jewish" and issuing Shabbat dinner invitations fly on university campuses steeped in universalism and political correctness? That's what The Hebrew University's esteemed researcher and professor of Jewish education Barry Chazan and doctoral student David Bryfman set out to find out. Their recently published results debunk a fair number of myths about Jewish young adults. Chazan examined a pilot project of "Shabbos" evening dinners conducted by Chabad on five North American campuses: Harvard, Stanford, State University of New York at Albany, University of Florida at Gainesville and the University of Michigan. The idea was to detail what actually happens when some 5,000 college students come for free eats and break halla with the Chabad hassidim on campuses every Friday night. An expert in informal Jewish education, Chazan wanted to delineate the pedagogic components of the weekly experience. According to Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, a member of the board of directors of the Chabad-Lubavitch on Campus Foundation, and a senior emissary at my own alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, the study was funded by donors who requested evaluation of the programs they were generously supporting. THE RESULTS contradict the assumption that university students are eager to jettison their homelike feelings when they matriculate. Far away from Mom and Dad, students turn out to actually seek "a home away from home." They particularly enjoy the family atmosphere of Chabad House, not just singing with the rabbi, but also schmoozing with the rebbetzin. Students call Friday night dinners at Chabad "homelike" even though the vast majority of them have never experienced a Shabbat dinner in their real homes. Chabad chicken soup becomes the archetype of home cooking. Wearing kippot and lighting Shabbat candles at the Chabad House doesn't seem to offend non-observant students. Nor are they turned off by hard-core Jewish tradition. They don't complain about the ritual hand washing, the 10 minutes of Bible table talk, or the five minutes of Grace after Meals. Just the opposite. They often return with friends. In Chazan's words, "Whatever their degree of connection or disconnection from Jewish life, many young Jews are seeking something 'authentically' Jewish in their lives." The Jewish world has a lot to learn from Chabad. For example, Chazan suggests that educators should learn to do experiential Jewish education and develop a cadre of professionals skilled in implementing it with this important college-aged group. He thinks Chabad could do even more to expand its teaching skills, but his overall recommendations to Chabad is: expand, expand, expand. What can those of us who are not professional educators learn from this survey and put into practice? Here are a few suggestions: * Sincere welcome: The Chabad co-directors of husband and wife offer warm greetings to those who cross their threshold, no matter how they dress or unfamiliar they are with traditional practices. The theory is that there is no non-hurtful way to criticize someone's clothing. Even a lifted eyebrow can be an exit visa from a Jewish setting. * Regulars don't have a sense of entitlement: Newcomers don't have to fear being ousted from their seats or snubbed. * Take a personal interest: Chabad rabbis and rabbaniot make a point of learning the names of their guests and making time for personal discussions. * Take the challenge seriously: Chazan quotes the dire statistics that half the estimated 270,000 Jewish college students come from families with only one Jewish parent, and only 2% of them think marrying a Jew is important. Among the half of the students who have two Jewish parents, only 44% thought it was important to have a Jewish spouse. Chabad uses military language to describe their battle to bring Judaism to the Jews. * Speed but don't skip: Whether they have observant or non-observant guests, they carry through the traditional elements with extreme alacrity, but never skip the obligatory parts of a service, ritual hand washing or Torah talk. * What's genuine comes through: Chabad has its share of detractors, but no one would question the sincerity of their devotion of Shabbat and Judaism. When we strengthen our own knowledge and commitment, it's easier to share. Shabbat isn't something to do only when you feel like it. * Trust your product: the reaserchers break the pedagogical elements of the Chabad evenings into elements, but we shouldn't forget the unique spiritual potency of Shabbat itself. There's that famous talmudic story about Shabbat dinners. Rabbi Yehuda invites the Roman emperor whose chef subsequently fails to reproduce the taste of the wonderful repast. A key ingredient is missing, explains the rabbi. No flavor can replace the spice of Shabbat. We can't convert our homes into mini-Chabad Houses, but we can certainly increase the number of guests we sincerely welcome both into our homes and our synagogues. Let's share the spice.