Jewish Life in a Gothic Wonderland


by S. Olidort - DURHAM, NC

June 4, 2003

It’s an intense, highly competitive campus located in a city that lays claim to the most PhDs per capita nationwide, a university where students come to work hard and play hard. Dubbed the Harvard of the South, Duke University is an institution wise beyond its years, and the 210-ft chapel framed by Gothic structures on its West Campus inspires a picture of the rigorous academic pursuit that defines Duke.

Whatever else it might be, though, this Methodist, southern research university, long avoided by traditional students afraid of jeopardizing their Jewish observance, seems an unlikely place for a young Chasidic Rabbi and his wife to set up base. But defying the odds, new Chabad representatives Rabbi Zalman and Yehudis Bluming and their infant son Mendel have stepped up to the plate, and Duke is finally dusting off its image as an exclusively Christian university. Determined to raise Jewish awareness on the campus, the Blumings have fast become a central Jewish address at Duke.

“They’re filling a real void that exists here,” says Jared Dinkis, a recent graduate, pointing to the holiday spectaculars that have attracted Jewish students of every stripe, many without any previous affiliation. From “Sukkah on the Go” to Duke’s first public Menorah lightings, Chabad, says Jared, is conveying the message of Jewish pride at Duke.

Sporting traditional Chasidic garb when they initially arrived last fall, the Blumings appeared out of place on campus. But the couple met students’ apprehension with an openness and warmth that is fast dissolving preconceived notions about ultra-orthodoxy and Chasidism. “Like pioneers on the prairie,” says one student of Zalman and Yehudis, Chabad has “brought joy and tradition to a world that has strayed far from those beautiful values.”

Through a lively range of programs, like Kabbalah 101—a Jewish Student Discussion Group, Challah Baking Club, and weekly Friday Night Prayer Services, the young couple from Brooklyn is reaching out to Duke’s 1,500 Jewish students and members of the larger Durham-Chapel Hill community. “It’s important that students realize how Judaism plays out in real life, outside of a campus environment,” says Bluming. Joint programming for students and community members enables Chabad to connect the two, and gives students a chance to participate in a comprehensive Jewish experience.

An email network called “Chicken Soup for the Neshama (soul),” reaches some 2,000 subscribers weekly with Torah insights and anecdotes, generating 400 responses, and Chabad’s student-run website, Chabaddch.com, attracts another 400 visitors each week.

The Blumings run a Kosher Co-op from their own four freezers, where they store kosher food products shipped from New York, and make them available to the larger Durham Triangle Park community. “We’re planning on expanding the Co-op,” says Mrs. Bluming, “to include Duke’s students and make kosher living more accessible to them.”

With plans to move the Chabad Center, now run from their own home off campus, to a more central location, the Blumings are trying to draw even more students, and expand Chabad’s reach.

It’s an effort that requires constant fundraising, not an easy task on campus, where students rarely have the means to contribute. But with the support of their families, a growing number of students, community members, and private donors nationwide, Chabad anticipates a bright future for Jewish life at Duke and in the Durham/Chapel-Hill area.

“Rabbi Zalman has brought an incredible spirit and enthusiasm for Jewish life to Duke,” says Larry Moenta, Ed.D, Vice President for Student Affairs. Joel L. Fleishman, Director of the Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy and the Profesions concurs: “Bluming brings zeal, enthusiasm, and persistence to his efforts to reach out to persons of all ages in spreading Jewish learning and religious observance.”

As students grapple with existential questions of faith and redefine their values, Chabad on campus encourages them to explore their Judaism on a multitude of levels. Here at the Blumings’ home, open round the clock, students observe Talmud and Kabbalah as it is translated from the abstract and applied to daily living. “This is a golden opportunity for reaching Jewish people at a stage when their decisions could affect the larger Jewish community for generations to come,” says Rabbi Bluming. And as the young Bluming family grows, the Duke Jewish community will grow along with them.

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