The Future of Judaism: Why College Students Seek Truth at Campus Chabad Houses

Freedom. Identity. Curiosity. Exploration. Our sons and daughters revel in these terms as they explore newly found independence on a college campus.  We are encouraged to challenge ourselves, dig deeper and find truth, each to her own. Yet, there is a price we pay, as a nation, for this adventure into the world and excavation into our inner identity: assimilation. The parameters of defining this term are not strictly marriage; by assimilation I intend to include knowledge, mindset, psychological standing, and soul. Within any given American college campus, young Jewish students fly free, their wings unfettered from the cultural ‘burdens’ of their parents, ready to escape into a world that may very well change the trajectory of the Jewish nation.

The battle for the soul of the future of our nation is on the college campus. It is here that sons and daughters assimilate, get lost, and detach from the bond of our tradition. However, it is also here that the most incredible revolution is slowly evolving: the connection between the Chabad House and the college seeker. It is here that any student can find the warmth of home, the freedom to explore, and the open-mindedness that facilitates growth. If you have ever observed an interaction between a campus Shliach, an emissary of the Rebbe, and a college student, you have captured an epic moment in time: bearded with a kippa, Tzitzit hanging out proudly, the Shliach is sitting in his living room with a myriad of students from all backgrounds, listening to them. Learning about them. Not forcing, not judging, not implementing, but listening. The Shliach grew up inculcated in the world of Chassidism, the student in secular freedom; their worlds collide. They crash. It is in that explosive collision that the absolute future of Judaism rests. And, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin are masterfully ushering in this horizon of fireworks. Yet, why? Is it not perplexing that on a Friday night, when a young student could be roaming the pubs of campus, he chooses to come to the local Chabad House, and stay there until 3 in the morning?

In the mid-20th century, while building the most influential Jewish movement in history, the Rebbe had the prophetic insight to ensure that college campuses offered students kosher food. Such an innovation was unheard of at the time, but the Rebbe insisted to create this environment for American students. Interestingly, a leading rabbinic figure at the time commented to the Rebbe that this would cause students to say a blessing before eating, perhaps where a kippa, perhaps even learn Torah. The Rebbe retorted that this was not his intention, although those are admirable goals. The Rebbe simply said he wanted a Jewish boy and a Jewish girl to have lunch together – kosher lunch – and he hoped that in talking with one another they would build a connection and get married. Let that sink in. A Chassidic Rebbe, as orthodox as they come, was concerned that your daughter would have a safe place, in the 1950s, to meet a young Jewish man, build a relationship, and get married. Not the blessing, not the observation of full orthodoxy; he simply wanted to help you help yourself, even from his office in Brooklyn.

It has been 24 years since the Rebbe was taken from his flock. The most extraordinary fact of modern Jewish history will be that his emissaries grew exponentially in the decades following his passing. These campus Shluchim, husbands and wives, who pop up on every college campus throughout the world, are the spine of our future. Yet, what is it about these unique campus Shluchim that makes them so successful? I believe it rests in 5 elements found in the campus Chabad House:

  1. In comparison to other movements on campus, the Chabad House is run by the husband and wife equally. It is standard protocol for the wife of the rabbi to be giving a class, speaking with college students, teaching students and running a full event independently (how’s that for empowering woman since 1951). I personally built a strong connection, and learned immensely, from the wives of the Chabad Shluchim on campus. (Mind you, when I say Chabad Shluchim I mean both husband and wife). Further, the children of the Chabad Shluchim create an ambiance unlike any institution attempting to help college students. The Chabad House meets the needs of our students through having both the husband and wife feed the student, both figuratively and spiritually.
  2. The Chabad House on campus is not an organization. It is not an institution. It is family. This is home. You do not pay, there are no annual fees, there is no registration. All are welcome, and they are each treated as family, literally. It is not uncommon for a medical student to babysit the children of the campus Shluchim, and it is very common to find 15 young ladies helping bake challah in the kitchen on a Friday afternoon. For 4 years, this becomes an oasis of peace, warmth and serenity for any college student. Other Jewish organizations are incapable of replicating this entity authentically.
  3. Every single person is welcome. Every flavor of Judaism is greeted equally. Every human being is given the same attention, Jew and non-Jew alike. I have spent nearly a decade around college Shluchim and nowhere on earth have I seen more diversity than at a Friday night Shabbat dinner table at the campus Chabad House. Students from every background feel the love at Chabad. Whether you are conservative, reformed, atheist, or orthodox, to the eyes of the Shliach you are a spark of the Divine whom they will serve earnestly. Wyou visit your local campus Chabad House, no one there is like you; every type of Jew joins in their heritage, and the discussions spring forth with artistic color and deep exploration. It is almost messianic.
  4. The only place open as often as your local emergency room is the campus Chabad House. When your child is sick in their dorm room, you can call the Shliach. When your child is overly stressed from finals, you can call your campus Shliach. Your son just ended a relationship? Your Chabad House can help. You are coming in to town and need a place to stay? The Shliach will help. You feel alone in a new city? Go to the Chabad House. It is a haven of warmth, security and fun.
  5. Perhaps the most unique contribution to the success of the campus Chabad House is the education and training these leaders receive prior to taking on the challenges of a campus. A college student is bound to push back, challenge, and argue to the death about their beliefs and opinions. I have observed students challenge their campus Rabbi about the existence of God, the prevalence of Evil, the atrocities of the Holocaust, the burdensomeness of Jewish Law, and the old fashion nature of the Torah. In every occasion, two things stood out: a) the Shluchim listen carefully, give the student the space to express their opinions, and enable an environment of true open-mindedness, and, b) the depths and quality of the answers given are second to none. This is possible because of their training. Chassidim go beyond studying laws, regulations and stories of our tradition; their sacred texts have been penned by 300 years of Chassidic teachings and thousands of years of Kabbalistic insights. They are capable of diving into these very perplexing discussions because they have been studying them for years. One thing we can all agree on is that college students will call nonsense when they see it. You can’t fake it with these students; either you know your stuff or you don’t. Either you are wise and deep or not. And the success of the college Chabad House points to one fact: these Shluchim truly know their philosophy, theology, and psychology.

We ought to take a step back, on the eve of the commemoration of the Rebbe’s passing, and ask ourselves how this is possible.

In a given chemical reaction, the amount of product produced is directly dependent on the quantity of the limiting reagent. A reaction will not proceed beyond the confines of the limiting reagent, and the chemical product is built in a proportional ratio to that chemical element. The limiting reagent of the Chabad House is infinite. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is an endless reservoir of love, wisdom, power, Godliness, strength and guidance. In an untainted attempt to bring truth and love to every person, the campus Chabad Rabbi and his wife draw upon the Rebbe’s teachings to give them the nourishment they need to give altruistically to your sons and daughters. The Rebbe empowers his followers to recognize a void, whether it be internal and external, and do all they can to fill it. Whether that void is your daughter’s dinner plate or your son’s inner soul, the campus Chabad family will find a way to fill it.

This is not meant to be an exploration into the Rebbe and his movement, nor is it an explanation of how Chabad accomplishes so much in our world. Thousands of pages need to be written to fully grasp that nuance. This is simply a thank you. A thank you for the sacrifice these wonderful women and men make with their lives for our sake. I salute the campus Chabad emissaries, I am in awe of their work, and I believe they are the backbone and future of our people.

This week we commemorate the 24th year since the passing of the Rebbe. I say it is 24 years of life. It is 24 years of miracles. It is 24 years of mystery. It is my hope that all of us, as a community, continue to support campus Shluchim throughout the world so they may continue their honest work unencumbered.

A special thank you to Rabbi Levi and Nechama Haskelevich ( University of Pennsylvania), Rabbi Eli and Freidy Brackman, ( the University of Oxford) and Rabbi Gil and Bracha Leeds ( U.C.). 

About the Author
Ayden is a senior healthcare data analyst, biomedical engineer, and clinical innovation expert. While building medical companies in a variety of domains, Ayden is steeped in the cross section of philosophy of religion, cultural dynamics and behavioral economics. Ayden graduated as a Medical Sciences Clarendon Scholar from Oxford University after studying religion and ethics in Jerusalem. Ayden blogs at www.AydenJacobMedicine.com. Twitter: @AydenJacobMed.
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