A New Place for Jewish Students at Columbia University


by Shoshana Olidort - COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NYC

April 3, 2006

“Chabad has given me confidence,” Ari Goldman told his colleagues last Thursday evening. Speaking at an intimate reception for the launching of the new Chabad Student Center at Columbia University, the professor of journalism and writer for the New York Times said that Chabad was instrumental in reinforcing his sense of Jewish pride and commitment at Columbia University.

“When I started teaching I thought that family and work don’t mix, but now I've learned from the Blums to reach out to students,” beyond the walls of the classroom, said Goldman.

Goldman was referring to Rabbi Yonah and Keren Blum, Chabad representatives at Columbia, who worked the room at Casa Italiana, a New York City landmark on campus and venue for an elegant wine and desserts reception. Zvi Galil, Dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was there to show support for the launching of the new building campaign. Members of Chabad’s faculty advisory board included Professor Goldman, Doctors Moshe Tenner and Judith Jacobson of the Medical School, and Professor Ester Fuchs of the School of International Affairs.

When renovations are complete, the five story building will feature student lounges, classrooms, a library, computer lab, and dining hall—an exciting development for the Jewish population on campus that makes up 25% of Columbia's undergraduate student body of about 8,000.

Located just one block off campus and surrounded by student housing, the new center will open next fall, just in time for the new academic year. The new center, says Rabbi Blum, will facilitate greater opportunities for students to “explore Judaism, develop their commitment and define their identity.”

One of its key selling points, and perhaps its single most cited advantage over its sister Ivies, is Columbia’s location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For Jewish students, many of whom flock here from across the country, this means a plethora of kosher eateries, synagogues, and Jewish cultural events to choose from. But the assumption that Jewish students at Columbia lack for nothing leaves those with little prior exposure to Judaism at a disadvantage: many of them do not take the initiative to explore the opportunities that abound.

This is where Chabad steps in, reaching out to students who may feel overwhelmed and intimidated. In the safe, nonjudgmental environment created by the Blums, students who’ve never experienced a Shabbat dinner, listened to a megillah reading or sat in a Sukkah, are encouraged to engage in a “deep, meaningful and joyful” experience of being Jewish, said philanthropist George Rohr, of the Rohr Family Foundation, who provided major funding for the purchase of the new building.

Chabad at Columbia University is a story of humble beginnings that started before the Blums arrived here in 1998. Speaking at the reception, Rabbi Shlomo Kugel, director of Chabad of the West Side, recalled the days, more than 20 years ago, when he and his wife Rivky manned a hot dog stand on college walk, in an effort to raise Jewish awareness on campus. Though their attentions were diverted by the growing demands of the Upper West Side community, Kugel said he always felt that “Chabad of the West Side wouldn’t be complete until there was a permanent Chabad presence at Columbia University.” The Blums, he said, seemed a good fit. “I knew they had an understanding of Jewish students and the issues they deal with,” said Kugel.

With the full offering of Chabad student programs, including the weekly Shabbat dinners in the small space of the Blum’s apartment whose “walls expand,” to include everyone, observed Goldman, Chabad soon became a familiar address to Jewish students looking for warmth and guidance. Early last fall, Chabad reached a critical milestone when it became an official, university-recognized student organization. A group of students soon formed the Chabad Student Board with initiatives like a weekly Shabbat table on college walk, where students can come by to bake their own challah.

With closing on the new building a mere three weeks away, and preparations for the upcoming Passover Seders at fever pitch, the Blums are racing against the clock to raise the funds that will make this new chapter in Jewish life at Columbia a reality.

Alex Horn, CC ’09, addressed the crowd at Thursday’s event. Columbia University, he said, provides many opportunities for student enrichment, but “a big part of my college experience thus far though has actually taken place away from the main hub of the university, specifically, a short, five- block stroll on Amsterdam at Rabbi Blum’s quaint and warm home.” The Blums, said Horn, have helped him “settle into the rhythm of university living without being removed in the least from the pulse of campus life.”

“The thing I most like about the Chabad at Columbia,” said Horn, “is the sense of home it instills in everything and everyone.”

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