By Jeffrey F. Barken
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s robust Internet presence, and its network of emissaries who foster Jewish life in communities ranging from the urban to the remote, are two of the most common elements associated with the Hassidic sect. But at the start of 2016, Chabad might be poised to make its largest strides in the arena of the college campus.
In November, nearly 5,200 Chabad rabbis and community leaders from 86 countries gathered in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries. The annual conference demonstrates the enthusiasm shared by Chabad emissaries as they seek to revive Jewish awareness and practices around the world.
In the wake of the conference, Chabad leaders are devoting renewed energy and resources to the Chabad on Campus program. Efforts to bring the Chabad movement to colleges and universities began in the 1940s. Today, the campus mission is seeing rapid growth. There are currently 230 Chabad campus centers serving Jewish students at 500 schools. Typically, a Chabad-Lubavitch couple staffs each center, with the initiative echoing the principles of openness and outreach that define Chabad in general.
“Many parents of current students forged relationships with emissaries years ago,” Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International, tells JNS.org. “Now, we’re seeing their children at their alma maters doing the same thing. It’s become generational, somewhat of a family tradition for young men and women to return not only to the school their parents went to, but to Shabbat tables and Torah classes at local Chabad centers as well.”
Rabbi Levi Slonim, head of programming and development at The Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at State University of New York (SUNY), Binghamton, has witnessed firsthand the exponential growth of Chabad on Campus. He is the son of Rabbi Aaron Slonim and his wife, Rivkah, the couple that founded the SUNY Binghamton chapter 30 years ago. He now serves alongside his parents with his wife, Hadasa.
“My parents [initially] rented a one-bedroom apartment. Sometimes they would have 5-15 students over for Shabbat dinner. Today, we have a steady 300-400 students attending Shabbat dinners,” Rabbi Levi Slonim tells JNS.org.
The Binghamton Chabad center has grown alongside the university, which now attracts many students from Jewishly observant and Orthodox homes. The fact that married couples manage most Chabad houses establishes home-like atmosphere characterized by a family’s devotion to the population and philosophy they serve.
“Typically, it’s a lifetime commitment,” Levi Slonim explains. “We serve until we have fulfilled the need, and it’s less of a profession and more of a commitment.”
Couples are therefore preferred over singles as Chabad emissaries, because “until you’re married you haven’t really decided your life’s work,” says Slonim, who adds that a Chabad center’s hosts need to be able to address issues of both genders.
“It’s a real partnership,” he says.
As a result of the vast network established by his family during the past 30 years, Slonim now receives daily communications from former SUNY Binghamton students.
“We do reunions once a year, and you get hundreds of people from all different years coming together,” he says. “There are so many people impacted by our services [in ways] we will never know. Suddenly we hear years later … [how] the nature of our work is personal and touches people in different ways.”
The personal aspect, it seems, is the salient common thread underlying the Chabad experience both in person and online.
Websites scattered throughout the Internet provide multiple points of entry. Unlike books, movies, TV shows, and other traditional media, websites have no beginning, middle, or end. Instead, a keyword search directs visitors to specific content of interest. Uniquely, Chabad.org – the website for the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy, movement, and organization – mimics the real-world interaction that generations of Jews seeking refuge, instruction, and a deeper connection to their faith have found around the world when they encounter Chabad emissaries.
On Chabad.org, a busy three-columned website structure presents diverse subject headings. These links lead to rich content that merges illuminating storytelling with historical anecdotes and descriptions of Chabad services, while positing topics for discussion.
The website’s “About” page states that the Chabad movement’s “system of Jewish religious philosophy” teaches “understanding and recognition of the Creator, the role and purpose of creation, and the importance and unique mission of each creature,” thereby inaugurating a lifelong process of self-reflection that guides an observant person’s daily existence.
Elsewhere on Chabad.org, there is a portal – “Ask the Rabbi” – that answers questions about the Jewish religion. Similarly, visitors seeking guidance on brit milah, bar mitzvah, marriage, and other practices encounter a selection of resources ranging from articles, tutorials, and advice columns. The website, however, ultimately steers visitors toward direct involvement with their local Jewish communities through the “Chabad Locator” search option for Chabad centers.
Jews from children, to college students, to adults, to the elderly encounter Chabad emissaries when their curiosity about Judaism, or a longing for community, prompts a concerted exploration. An individual’s path forward is guided by Chabad affiliates, yet ultimately defined by his or her independent discoveries. For that matter, the Binghamton college campus Chabad’s Levi Slonim says the goal of “owning Judaism” is a guiding principle behind his work.
“Every student has his own way,” he says. “For some students, it can be wearing the kippah on campus, and gathering the strength to do that. For others, it can be defending Israel publicly. For others, observing Shabbat, or wrapping tefillin.”
For many, no matter what door they enter through, discovering Chabad online or in person, on campus or in a different kind of communal setting, presents the first opportunity to embark on a larger personal quest. The quest itself has defined, and will likely continue to define, a movement that many consider the most dynamic force in Judaism today.
[Also see, “Why Do We Love Chabad.org? Let Us Count 613 Ways!” by Robert Evans
and “Unpacking Chabad: Their Ten Core Elements for Success” by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.]