Jewish Clubhouse at Yale


by S. Olidort - NEW HAVEN, CT

May 25, 2003

It was the latest buzz on a busy campus this year. Dubbed 3M, (no, it’s not the innovative technology company), for its suite number in the prestigious Taft Apartments, just off Yale’s campus, the new Chabad center at Yale, says sophomore Brian Korchin, has quickly evolved into the Jewish clubhouse at Yale.

Here since the fall semester, Chabad became the focal point for Jewish life at Yale, and, says Korchin, a religious studies major and president of Chabad, be it through Friday night Shabbat dinners, weekday learning sessions, or hip partying to a Chasidic beat, 3M, “created a fire, a revolutionary force” on a campus that dates back to the American Revolutionary War.

In 1805, Yale University accepted its first Jewish student, Moses Simon, more than a century after the school’s founding. In the decades that ensued, others would follow his lead, to the mounting disapproval of its administrators who established a covert quota system to limit the size of the Jewish student body.

Yale’s quota system remained in effect until the late 50’s, but today, the university’s student body of 10,000 includes nearly 3,000 Jewish students. Under the University’s motto of Lux et Veritas, or Light and Truth, this bastion of intellectual activity and multiculturalism is foremost among the country’s leading educational institutions.

But according to sophomore Gene Smilansky, although “the sheer number of Jews on campus ensures that Jewish history is studied, Jewish holidays observed, and Jewish interests represented,” that isn’t enough. Jewish life at Yale, he says, shouldn’t be limited to “an abstract integration of Judaism into the academic curriculum and undergraduate organizations.” For the community to thrive, it needs “its own space in which to gather, celebrate and observe.” 3M, he concedes, “has had a greater impact on my Jewish life at Yale than any class I have taken, or any book I have read.”

With the recent launching of a New York-based, Chabad on Campus organization, the umbrella organization for Chabad houses from Oxford and Yale to Tulane and UDEL, and a new wave of centers springing up on campuses across the country, Chabad has become ubiquitous to the Jewish scene at many universities. What set Chabad at Yale apart then, from its sister organizations at Harvard, Princeton, and Duke, to name a few, was its leadership: Nachman Abend and Shua Rosenstein, two 21-year old rabbinical students, from LA and Detroit, respectively. While simultaneously pursuing their ordination at a New Haven Yeshiva, the two devoted themselves to raising Jewish awareness and involvement on the 300-year old campus.

According to Rabbi Shmully Hecht, rabbinical advisor to the Yale Chai Society (the Jewish society on campus), it was the leaders’ youth, intelligence, and ability to relate to fellow students, that attracted so many to Chabad’s doors in the short time span of its existence. At 3M, says Hecht, students learn about the “warmth and beauty of Judaism in a particularly intellectual manner, that lends itself to the dialogue of the greater Yale community, and brings the Torah perspective to Yale.”

The two conducted one-on-one learning sessions ranging from Chasidut to Talmud and Hebrew reading with some 40 students and faculty members each week and led a beginner’s Minyan, complete with a discussion of the Parsha—but no speech—each Shabbat.

The rabbis organized Chanukah events, Purim parties, and Passover seders attracting diverse spectrum of students, many with little Jewish background, and 3M’s popularity soared so high, that when Yale Friends of Israel, a student organization on campus, wanted to maximize participation at their gathering, they asked Chabad to host, and were overwhelmed by the results.

But by all accounts, it was the Shabbat dinners at 3M that made Chabad here so wildly successful. What began as a small affair, with five students, literally grew in leaps, accommodating as many as 50 people in a 20-seater dining room on a typical Friday eve. The lavish three-course affair, which Nachman and Shua would prepare from scratch, invited students to indulge their palates and nourish their souls with thought-provoking conversations. “We’d be eating delicious gefilte fish while Nachman would give us his treatise on life,” says Korchin.

Through its various programs, Chabad aims to “reconnect students to their Jewish roots,” says Rosenstein, and “make Judaism an integral, relevant part of students’ lives.”

The need to set up a Chabad center at Yale became obvious to Rabbi Hecht, as he observed a general re-embracing, and simultaneous re-questioning of religious convictions, following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, anti-Israel activities on campus, and global anti-Semitism. Religion, he says, must play a role in any multicultural society, and Chabad has created the perfect venue for Jewish students at Yale to become acquainted, or reacquainted with their heritage.

For many wary students at Yale, “there was an initial fear of this becoming a proselytizing movement,” says Korchin. But Chabad is not about converting anyone, and students quickly realize that it’s really about “reigniting a spark within each one of us, and a genuine love that Nachman and Shua feel for every Jew.” The pair brought Judaism alive for a generation of Jews who tend to relegate traditional Judaism to their parents or grandparents’ domain. It’s through them, says Korchin, that students were able to see the new, young spirit of Judaism.

“They’ve really bonded with students in a very personal, real kind of way,” says Eric Rosenstock, graduate student at Yale Law School. And it is thanks to them, says sophomore Wills Glasspiegel, that “students were able to participate on a level of personal communication and dialogue that is not possible anywhere else on campus.”

According to Korchin, Chabad has come a long way in its goal of strengthening Jewish identity and pride at Yale, and has “reinvigorated my own Jewishness to an extent I never imagined possible.”

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