Does Chabad make students more Jewish? New study suggests yes

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There’s something about a taco; if you fill it, they will come. That certainly holds true on Taco Tuesdays at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center near U.C. Berkeley, where every week some 100 hungry Jewish undergrads line up to chow down.

At 6 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Chabad Rabbi Gil Leeds, 34, laid out pans of refried beans, ground beef and shredded lettuce. His wife, Bracha, unwrapped taco shells, while daughter Rivka, 9, had the chopped tomatoes under control. Students met and mingled, noshing on free tacos before getting down to business.

U.C. Santa Cruz students and Chabad rebbitzen Devorah Chein (right) at last year’s Lag BaOmer celebration. Photo/U.C. Santa Cruz

For the Leeds family, that business is welcoming students into their home (which doubles as the Chabad center), providing young adult Jews a safe space and connecting them to their Jewish roots in ways that, if all goes well, could last a lifetime.

“Every moment is accounted for in reaching out to students,” the rabbi says. “We want to have an impact that’s not just linear, but more of a nuclear reaction where everyone touches someone else. That’s how we will change the world.”

The Berkeley couple are Chabad campus shluchim (emissaries), married couples who do the Chabad movement’s outreach work on nearly 200 American colleges and universities. The first Chabad campus center opened in 1969 at UCLA. After a somewhat slow start, Chabad campus outreach began to ramp up dramatically in the late ’90s, increasing in the last 16 years from 30 campus centers to 195 today, making them almost as a prevalent a hub of Jewish student activity as Hillel, which serves students on 550 North American campuses.

Despite their proliferation, Chabad campus centers have not attracted the same academic scrutiny as Hillel, which has been the subject of several impact studies over the years.

Last month, however, results were released from the first independent study of the impact of Chabad campus activities on the Jewish lives of college students.

Commissioned and funded by the Washington, D.C.- based Hertog Foundation and three years in the making, the study analyzed data collected from 22 Chabad campus centers across the country, including at U.C. Santa Cruz. Through interviews, focus groups and online surveys, the academic researchers — including noted Jewish demographer Steven M. Cohen, Arielle Levites and Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz — wanted to see if Chabad made a difference in the lives of Jewish college students, not just during their years on campus but afterward.

The results, according to the researchers who conducted the study, show that Chabad’s impact is “pervasive,” affecting long-term religious beliefs and practices, friendships, marriage, attachment to Israel and Jewish identity. (See summary of results here).

U.C. Berkeley students on a Chabad event bus last month. photo/courtesy rohr chabad jewish student center

The study’s authors wanted to find out who comes to Chabad campus activities, what sort of interpersonal and spiritual connections they form there, and what of it lasts beyond graduation. To do so, they surveyed 2,400 current students and alumni from all 22 schools.

Of those interviewed, 11 percent were raised Orthodox, 39 percent Conservative, 32 percent Reform and 18 percent unaffiliated. They were further subdivided into three categories of participation at Chabad: none/low (53 percent), moderate (25 percent) and high (22 percent).

For students with moderate and high participation, Chabad became a second home. A sizeable majority agreed it was “a welcoming space for Jews from all backgrounds” — this despite the fact that Chabad is uncompromisingly Orthodox when it comes to Jewish religious observance.

“At Chabad, you show up and it might be a little bit foreign but it’s very warm and welcoming,” said the study’s lead author Mark Rosen, who is also an associate professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University. “Some people are kind of wary, but it’s friendly and fun, the food is good and nobody’s putting pressure.”

Rosen and his colleagues identified seven core principles that undergird Chabad’s work, among them that every Jew and every mitzvah matters, personal relationships are central and, perhaps most important, one must love every Jew.

The study also identified 18 indicators of post-college engagement, such as belief in God, hosting or attending Shabbat meals, extent of Jewish friendships and feeling part of the Jewish community.

Results were mixed depending on denomination and level of participation, but overall, the study found Chabad had a positive impact, especially with students from Reform and unaffiliated backgrounds who ended up being the most active at Chabad.

“It was like a switch went on with these students,” Rosen said. “They didn’t have preconceived ideas about what it was to practice Judaism. Chabad said, ‘This is a mitzvah that gets you closer to God,’ and many of them took that on.”

That is the Chabad ethos, whether on campus or in the general community. Counterintuitive though it may be, the strictly Orthodox organization often finds itself working with Jews with little traditional background or practice.

Says rebbetzin Bracha Leeds, “Everyone is at their own level of interest and level of baggage they come in with. If they had no Jewish experiences, a lot of times it’s easier to start fresh.”

U.C. Berkeley sophomore Idan Hovav, 19, describes himself as an aspiring computer hacker. He means that in a good way.

U.C. Berkeley students Idan Hovav (left) and Liem Cohen at Chabad’s Taco Tuesday on Sept. 20. photo/dan pine

Though born in Israel, Hovav lived in Sunnyvale for most of his life. Like many secular Israelis, he grew up practicing little Judaism. Since coming to the Cal campus, he has been active with Hillel and pro-Israel groups such as Bears for Israel. He’s also chair of the Chabad center’s 35-member student board.

“Jewish values are strong and beneficial, and lead to a valuable life,” he says between tacos. “It’s important to empower Jews to recognize and explore the role Judaism can play in their lives. That’s why I connect to Chabad. It encourages Jews on campus to be proud to be Jewish.”

Chabad centers are not just a hangout. In addition to hosting Shabbat and holiday services, they offer Torah study and classes on Jewish subjects, all delivered through an Orthodox lens but recruitment is not the Chabad mission on campus.

In fact, were that the goal, Chabad on Campus International would be branded a failure. Virtually no student interviewed in the study ended up a card-carrying Chabadnik.

“I have felt no pressure to change or become someone I’m not,” Hovav said. “That is the result of active choices of this community to be a pluralistic place.”

The study identified Chabad “inclusive but not pluralist,” as the organization remains committed to traditional Jewish practice. However, the centers welcome all Jews — including those from intermarried homes or dating non-Jews — and strive to make them feel welcome. That’s part of Chabad outreach in general.

Among respondents with high participation in Chabad who were raised Reform or unaffiliated, 63 percent said they consider being Jewish as “very important.”

Of course, Chabad does not exist in a vacuum. Hillel and other Jewish organizations are active on the same campuses, offering a range of options to Jewish students, some of which overlap with Chabad’s. The study notes that patterns of participation are similar and that both Chabad and Hillel have an impact on post-college Jewish students.

“There’s nothing but positive feelings on a professional level for Rabbi Gil and Bracha,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel. “The work they do is really important. It offers an experience for Jewish students who might not otherwise be interested in Hillel. At the end of the day we’re interested in Jewish students connecting with Jewish life. I see it as a success if they find that with Gil and Bracha as much as at Hillel.”

Stanford students with Chabad Rabbi Dov Greenberg (second from left) photo/joyce goldschmid

Rabbi Leeds, a former Cal student who, bucking the norm, credits Chabad with bringing him into Orthodox Judaism, says connecting with every student who walks through his door leads to the kind of enthusiasm Hovav expresses.

“We have so many faces,” the rabbi said. “There are always people I never met, but our goal is to follow up and have personal encounters with everybody. It’s not easy. What matters most is that time when you go out of your way to make them feel important, special and counted.”

That means building strong personal bonds. Shluchim come in married pairs — often with a flock of young children in tow — because they want to model what they consider to be a proper observant Jewish family. Unlike most Jewish professionals, who go home at the end of the work day, Chabad campus shluchim are never off-duty — their home is open to students 24/7, and the rabbi and rebbetzin often fill in as surrogate parents, even when they are not much older than the students they serve.

Bracha Leeds not only offers classes on dating and marriage from a Jewish perspective; she also ends up playing mom. She has had more than a few intimate conversations with female students, often having to do with dating, which she calls “a pretty hot topic.”

“We’ve had students coming at all hours because they just broke up with someone and don’t know what to do,” she said. “We don’t tell them what to do but help them make the best decisions for themselves. We also have students in long-term relationships. ‘Do you think he’s marriage material’ is a question I get a lot. We always joke, ‘Be careful who you sit next to; you might end up marrying them.’ ”

In between the late-night talks and playing with the shluchim’s children, a lot of Jewish ritual happens as well.

“If you go to Friday night dinner, there’s going to be hand-washing, Kiddush, hamotzi and Birkat HaMazon,” said Rosen, referring to Jewish blessings over bread and wine, and grace after meals. “I spent Shabbat at one Chabad center and the rabbi did all those things. A fair number of students were not paying attention. It wasn’t heavy-handed, but it was just there.”

Non-Orthodox students interviewed for the study reported a higher frequency of lighting Shabbat candles in their postgrad lives — as much as 45 percent among those raised with no denominational background.

Take Matthew Wigler. The 19-year-old Stanford University sophomore grew up in a Reform household in Great Neck, N.Y., and remembers receiving some advice from the synagogue cantor when he was approaching his 13th birthday.

“She told me I shouldn’t bother getting a bar mitzvah,” Wigler said. “I was a lost cause who couldn’t speak Hebrew well enough.”

He did have a bar mitzvah, but like many teenagers in the liberal Jewish world, he then abandoned formal Judaism. It took a casual invite to lunch at Chabad at Stanford to change that trajectory.

Once he got a taste of Rabbi Dov Greenberg’s intellectual mastery of Jewish religious topics, Wigler found himself hooked.

“Chabad has definitely been an important place of Jewish life and growth for me,” he said. “I didn’t have the traditional Jewish background other people had. I didn’t study at a day school, I was just coming at it being confronted with traditions.”

Wigler says he is “far more observant” than he used to be, attending Shabbat services and dinners twice a month and being “much more conscious of the values and traditions going through life.”

Greenberg and his wife, Rachel, have run Chabad at Stanford for 15 years. He says the Jewish population at the Palo Alto campus is diverse, but he has noticed some similar tendencies.

“Most Jews on college campuses are not engaged Jewishly,” he said, “but what’s exceptional is that the vast majority did not reject Judaism. They were simply not exposed to it growing up. The majority of students that come to Chabad are not coming with baggage in terms of Jewish identity or tradition. They are asking what this ancient tradition that made unique contributions to human civilization says to them. They see something different, something beautiful, that touches them in a deep way.”

The Greenbergs’ Palo Alto home, located a few blocks from the sprawling Stanford campus, undergoes quite a transformation on Friday evenings. The furniture gets pushed to the walls and long folding tables are put up and set elegantly, taking up most of the space.

It’s just the Greenbergs and 75 of their closest friends for Shabbat.

On the Friday before Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi led the Ma’ariv evening service, men on one side of the house, women on the other. Dressed in a long black coat, Greenberg paced about like a conductor leading an orchestra. At the end, he urged everyone to say hello to those they didn’t know.

Before dinner, he asked everyone to say six words about themselves. Most noted their major and wished all shanah tovah (though one visiting Berkeley grad used her turn to predict Cal would win the Big Game, a heresy met with good-natured hissing).

Then the rabbi rose to deliver what he called a minute of Torah.

“I believe people have a deep sense of spiritual longing and purpose,” he explained later. “We have deep cravings for deeper things in life. [Students] are searching for that, even as they search for great jobs. We’re creatures that need meaning; that is what’s unique to the human species. Our goal is to open up the doors of Judaism.”

The study’s authors saw this credo in action nationwide in the Chabad work they observed, noting that shluchim take “an incremental perspective, believing that each mitzvah leads to the performance of an additional mitzvah. They are realistic and know that only a small percentage of students will become fully observant.”

They dubbed it a “Judaism of more.” And reinforcing that Chabad was not out to recruit for itself, 65 percent of study respondents said they did not get the message that “being Orthodox was better than being Conservative or Reform.”

“At Hillel, if you’re a newcomer, there tends to be different groups you join or don’t join,” Rosen noted. “At Chabad, it’s not like that. Everybody is just there. It’s a Jewish meting pot.”

Though the study noted that Chabad eschews the notion of Jewish pluralism, Rabbi Leeds embraces the idea.

“We’re just all Jews, we’re all people,” he said. “When God created everyone in his image, he meant everyone. That message is what resonates in our activities and the way we treat everyone who comes through our door. One of our earliest members was openly bisexual, but was one of our biggest recruiters. It’s not our job to judge people.”

Greenberg, Leeds’ colleague on the Peninsula, has been at it 15 years, long enough to see more far-reaching effects of his work. He notes that in the past two months, he has officiated at two weddings of former Stanford students who called Chabad a second home. That’s on top of a few baby-namings and a bris or two.

Those may be major lifecycle events, but Greenberg says he measures his success “literally one mitzvah at a time.”

“If a student says, ‘Today I’m involved with Judaism just a bit more than I was yesterday,’ or ‘Today I studied a bit more today,’ that’s a success,” he said. “It’s not about creating followers of Chabad. It’s about creating Jewish leaders, guided by our tradition and values.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.