“What Chabad has achieved in the last 15 years is quite remarkable,” said Mark Rosen, noting the movement’s explosive growth on U.S. college campuses from 35 in 2000 to 187 today.
By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Gregg Gilbert, a graduate of the University at Albany (SUNY ‘99) said Chabad on Campus introduced him to Judaism.
“The fact that I live in Israel now, keep kosher and try to lead a Torah life – this is a testament to the impact of Chabad,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert’s story is more common than one might have thought, according to a new study, released this morning by the Hertog Foundation. The 132-page report defines for the first time who comes to Chabad on Campus, what it is that Chabad actually does with college students, and what impact Chabad involvement has on the post-college lives of young Jewish adults.
Written by Brandeis University Professor Mark Rosen in conjunction with Steven Cohen, Arielle Levites and Ezra Kopelowitz, the report is based on qualitative research at 22 campus Chabad centers and surveys from over 2,400 alumni under the age of 30, which analyze 1,898 measures of Jewish engagement.
“What Chabad has achieved in the last 15 years is quite remarkable,” said Rosen, noting the movement’s explosive growth on U.S. college campuses from 35 in 2000 to 187 today.
“Anyone interested in understanding Jewish innovation should take a look at Chabad,” he said.
Rosen and his team have been working on the report for three years; the study was commissioned by Hertog in 2013. They spent the first six months identifying participating schools, one year conducting surveys and interviews, and a year-and-a-half analyzing the data and writing the report.
“I kept rewriting and revising as I gained a deeper understanding of what was going on,” said Rosen. “It took a while to tell Chabad’s cohesive story.”
WHO AND WHAT
Chabad attracts students from all Jewish backgrounds, including Orthodox (11%), Conservative (39%), Reform (32%), non-denominational (10%), and other (7%). The majority (80%) of student participants have had no previous experience with Chabad.
The Chabad curriculum varies greatly from campus to campus and could include classes ranging from Judaism 101 to Talmud study. Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins discuss the performance of mitzvahs and Chassidism to questions about life, God, love and marriage.
“We offer value and substance,” explained Rabbi Hershey Novack, who with wife, Chana, runs the Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University in St. Louis. “We offer … meaning and purpose, and that’s why students choose to come back.”
Novak said that beyond formal classes, Chabad on Campus tries to role model “Jewish family” for students, striving to be a home away from home. According to the study, this generally includes the rebbetzin demonstrating how to bake challah and run a kitchen, practical skills many of the female students interviewed appreciate.
“It is hoped that warm memories of Shabbat meals will inspire Shabbat observance and keeping kosher years later when students have their own homes and families,” wrote the authors.
David Weinstein, a student at St. Louis University (SLU) said he spends at least seven hours a week at Chabad. He described the curriculum as, “You just sit down and talk, there is not much too it.” But he noted the informal environment has taught him how to interact with people he doesn’t know and to start/maintain conversations with diverse individuals.
The students who gain the most in terms of increased Jewish engagement are those students who were raised Reform or without a denomination. The survey looked at 18 measures of post-college Jewish engagement and involvement including religious beliefs, practices and affiliation (frequency of lighting Shabbat candles, synagogue membership); friendships, community involvement and learning (volunteering for a Jewish organization, donating to a Jewish organization); dating and marriage (importance of dating Jewish, choosing a Jewish spouse); Israel (emotional attachment); and being Jewish (importance), among others.
“Participation at Chabad during college fosters a greater involvement with mainstream Jewish life [after college],” according to the researchers.
Among Reform Jews who showed a high level of participation with Chabad (16%), the surveyors saw improvement in engagement across all 18 measures. Among non-denominational Jews with a high level of Chabad participation (24%), surveyors saw improvement in engagement across 16 of 18 measures. Conservative Jews with high participation levels also saw improvement across all 18 measures, but to a lesser degree than their Reform counterparts.
Dating and marriage: Among those with high involvement with Chabad, 73% of Orthodox, 63% of Conservative, 37% of Reform and 61% of those raised with no denomination said “dating Jews is very important.” Some 75% of Orthodox, 69% of Conservative, 51% of Reform and 53% of non-denominational reported that “most or all the people dated in the past year were Jewish.”
While only 16% of those interviewed were married, they were more likely (82% of students with one Jewish parent and 92% of students with two Jewish parents) to have married someone Jewish if they were more frequent participants at Chabad during college.
Attachment to Israel: Students who frequented Chabad are also more attached to Israel, with 63% of Orthodox, 67% of Conservative, 51% of Reform and 61% of those raised without a denomination reporting being “very attached” to the Jewish state.
According to Novack, while Chabad tends not to outwardly promote a pro-Israel agenda – such as through the media – Chabad on Campus “supports, gives knowledge and resources” to students with a pro-Israel agenda. He said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has led many students to search out “safe, secure and powerful Jewish supports” on campus, which they find “consistently through their local Chabad houses.”
“We support Israel through our students,” Novack said.
Rosen noted that the study did not compare the impact of Birthright Israel on a student’s attachment to Israel with that of Chabad’s because one “cannot compare a 10-day trip with four years of engagement.” However, he noted that Chabad takes thousands of students to Israel each year; since Novack started at Washington U. 14 years ago, he said he has taken an average of almost 100 students to Israel per year.
Philanthropy: Students who frequent Chabad are more inclined to make a donation to a Jewish organization. Of those interviewed, 76% of Orthodox, 75% of Conservative, 63% of Reform and 61% of those raised with no denomination reported making such a donation within the past 12 months. Those Reform Jews who did not or who rarely participated with Chabad were 29% less likely to make such a donation.
While students’ contributions increase, the authors note there is no central funding model for Chabad on Campus, which means Chabad on Campus staff spends a significant portion of their time cultivating donors, especially during the summer.
“While Jewish federations support Hillel on campus both locally and at the national level, federations either do not fund Chabad centers at all or only provide small grants,” according to the report. Chabad International also does not provide a central pool of funding.
Chabad on Campus’ methodology is rooted in the teachings of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902 to 1994). These teachings include the idea of rebuilding the Jewish people through education, serving as role models and decreasing divisions among the Jewish people, explained Novack.
As such, he said he and other emissaries see their jobs “not as jobs, but as missions.”
“An employee can go home at the end of the day,” Novack said. “A person who has a sense of purpose and a mission is worried about all the things and people whose lives he is touching all the time. We cannot stop focusing on what we want to accomplish.”
Novack said that Chabad tries to create a culture of inclusiveness and a space where every student who chooses to participate feels welcomed, validated and encompassed.
When comments about Chabad provided by more than 1,200 alumni were analyzed by researchers, they found the single most frequently mentioned word used to describe Chabad was “welcoming.”
“All Jewish students, regardless of background and upbringing, attend the same events and are welcomed regardless of their beliefs or practices,” according to the authors.
“They are so nice, warm and welcoming,” said Maia Lamdany, a recent graduate of Washington University.
“What stands out about Chabad?” asks SLU’s Weinstein. “We can come together as Jews. It doesn’t matter how Jewish you are.”
The study also found this non-judgmental attitude leads to deep interpersonal relationships that outlast the college years. Students who are frequent participants at Chabad maintain their relationships with the rabbi and rebbetzin.
When asked if they had any contact with their campus rabbi or rebbetzin after college, 60% of highly involved and 18% of moderately involved students said they had contact. The study found that even seven years after graduation, 50% of respondents in the high participation category during college had contact with the rabbi or rebbetzin in the past 12 months.
Novack said social media has helped Chabad couples maintain relationships post-graduation. Chabad is active on new media and “friends” its students on Facebook. Further, he said couples are willing to travel to meet and support their alumni.
“We heard from every rabbi interviewed about weddings they had conducted for former students, sometimes flying across the country or even overseas,” wrote the researchers.
HILLEL vs. CHABAD
In order to conduct the study, Rosen said that the researchers did gather information on Hillel and other campus Jewish life participation. However, they made a policy decision not to report any of those findings, “since that was not the purpose of the study and we did not collaborate with Hillel.”
Rosen noted many respondents reported attending both Hillel and Chabad.
“There are not very many that exclusive to one or another,” he said.
Novack said the study has given him further motivation to do his job well. While the Chabad philosophy is to focus on each student as an individual and to view his/her growth in comparison only to his/herself, he said the Hertog study, which measured success on a broad level, showed that Chabad on Campus “has a direct impact on the future of the Jewish people.”
“For those of us who are older, we went to school when there was no Chabad and therefore we have a different vision of what Jewish life on campus is like,” said Rosen. “But for modern students, there is no question: Chabad is a major and important presence.”