On Campus: Chabad Makes Its Relevance Known To A New Crop of Students

On Campus: Chabad Makes Its Relevance Known To A New Crop of Students

Students at Hofstra University bowl with Chabad.

by EJ Tansky - Princeton, NY

August 16, 2007

Princeton, Hofstra, Cambridge. At two of these universities, the 2007 Fall semester begins with the Chabad center in a new, larger space. At one, the rabbi will be dressed up like a chicken. Can you guess which one?

Beginning with a bang is a feat campus Chabad centers strive to pull off every year. Unlike synagogues or Jewish centers serving stable city or suburban communities, campus Chabad Shluchim must make their relevance known to a new crew of people every September.

There’s no momentum from past semesters, really. Even students who once spent every Shabbat at Chabad may be juggling new class schedules, new housing situations, new significant others that force them to realign their relationship with Jewish life on campus.

And yet, Chabad centers across the country and round the world make into the in-crowd, so much so that they have to expand. Rabbi Eitan Webb, co-director of Chabad on Campus at Princeton University, spent the waning days before the fall semester brought flocks of students (and their proud, worried parents) to campus surrounded by boxes. He and Gitty Webb, the center’s co-director, moved from their two-bedroom apartment to a new home. 

“It’s four times the size of the old space,” said Rabbi Webb.

Placing students in the center of the action keeps the Webbs’ programming fresh. Late one breezy August night, Rabbi Webb pulled a lengthy planning session with the student board to ensure the semester’s activities would meet student needs. This is the same approach used by the Chabad center that serves Hofstra University students in Hempstead, NY.

Morst importantly, according to Shmuel and Chavie Lieberman, is Chabad’s attentiveness to the composition of the approximately 2,500 Jewish students on campus: a healthy number are Sephardic Jews, with middle-eastern and north African roots. When the Liebermans punched up the spices to serve up a Sephardic Shabbat dinner, they attracted a huge Friday-night crowd.

As a result of their popular activities, the Liebermans found it necessary to move to a larger space. The date for the dedication of the center, which will coincide with a ceremony to welcome a new Torah, has not yet been set, but “we’re going to make a big deal out of it,” said Chavie. The Liebermans expect that the excitement over the new place will help spread word about Chabad on campus to the incoming freshman and returning students.

Without a new building to grab headlines, Rabbi Reuven Leigh at Chabad of Cambridge University is heading to the local ‘fancy dress’ shop for a chicken costume.

Among Cambridge University’s nearly seven centuries of traditions is a societies fair. That’s when Cantabrigian students wander aisles of tables staffed by clubs members of every stripe pitching for their membership. Chabad always gets lumped in with the other religion-oriented societies.

“It’s important not to get labled as boring,” said Rabbi Leigh.

Along with his feathered frock, Rabbi Leigh and a flock of similarly attired students will be handing out shots of chicken soup in espresso cups. Their booth will be marked with a large sign proclaiming “Chicken Soup” in Hebrew. Between the Jewish penicillin and the Hebrew letters, Rabbi Leigh expects to meet Jewish students who’d otherwise pass by a plain Jane booth.

“We might lose a few vegetarians, but that’s all.”

Big new buildings, fresh new Torahs, Jewish brews and cups of chicken soup, there are many avenues to meet new students.

After the chicken costume is returned to the shop and the “Grand Opening” banners are put away, the real work begins to make Chabad on campus a place where Jewish students feel comfortable digging into their spiritual roots.

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