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What About Chabad?
Mon, 07/26/2010 - 20:00

At first, the implication one perceives running through Gary Rosenblatt’s column (“New Torah-Based Outreach Seen Energizing Hillel,” July 2) is that Hillel’s new model of reaching Jewish students through text-based learning and personal engagement is innovative and indeed even radical on campuses. 

However, since Rosenblatt acknowledges (albeit not till halfway through the article) that Chabad has successfully pioneered this very model at universities around the world, and that Hillel is now applying Chabad’s example to their own efforts, it seems that the column implies something deeper about organizations dedicated to Jewish life and learning on campus.

The fact that Rosenblatt goes into great detail in presenting Rabbi Dan Smokler and Hillel’s new initiatives for Jewish learning and relationship-building on campus, while basically omitting reference to the extensive and well-established work that Chabad has done for years in the very same vein, seems indicative of certain preconceptions about acceptable intersections of religious and academic life, especially for young people. It seems to me that this might be an example in which religious expression (whether via learning, observance, identity or community) becomes acceptable and indeed valued only when presented under the mantle of academia. Thus Judaism and Jewish learning when filtered and perhaps rebranded under more academic auspices, seems innovative, while the same approach without such institutional trappings goes unrecognized.

The assumption may be that Chabad houses on college campus are just outposts of the much larger Chabad movement, and are centrally funded and administered. But Chabad houses at universities are just as much campus organizations as are the Hillel chapters. The Chabad houses and the shluchim [emissaries] who establish and run them are self-sustaining, each with a singular mission to serve the needs of its particular campus.

There may be a wariness toward the perceived “Orthodoxy” of Chabad versus the “universalism” of Hillel. But Hillel’s move to “deepen” its engagement in Jewish life, and Rabbi Smokler’s statement that “the end goal is Torah,” show that students and Jewish educators are recognizing that these limiting and misleading categories are irrelevant in the personal and intellectual pursuit of Judaism and Jewish learning.

Chabad Houses on university campuses across America and around the world deserve the same recognition as Hillel, and could benefit just as much as from funding that the Jim Joseph Foundation seeks to commit to fostering Jewish learning and Torah study among young people.

Columbia University, 2007


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We are experiencing the same kind of bias on a U.S. Army base in the United States. I am hesitating to be more specific because I am afraid of the reprecussions for my husband who is an active duty officer.Since the Jewish Lay Leader is endorsed by the Jewish Welfare Board and has been doing his job on this base the past five years, our recent arrival as Orthodox Jews has not been welcomed, but met with definite resentment. I have written numerous letters to the JWB that the Jewish soldiers are not benefitting from the donations of religious items and holiday foods sent by Aleph Institute ( an arm of Chabad at prisons and military bases). The Jewish soldiers tell us that they only have a military issued New Testament and never knew there were siddurim available. No answer from the JWB except that we have to be respectful of their appointee! The Army only recognizes the endorsed representative. We were reprimanded by the Chapel for trying to advertise a kosher seder on the first night of Passover, while the JWB representative had a non-kosher seder for the soldiers and their families only on the second night for his own convenience. It doesn't seem to phase the JWB after so many e-mails that I would not be afraid to speak my mind and let the Jewish world know that soldiers here have the right to observe their Sabbath and religionwhenever possilbe. It seems to be a matter of JWB ego to not let anything change here. It is a sin that they have made us police another Jew and not respond to us. We do not want to go into depth with the non-Jewish chaplains about the miserable Jewish representation here. He not only encourages disrespect and snickering at us from a couple of his followers with very little Jewish background, but he instructs them to feel superior as "Reform Jews". I think even the Reform movement would be embarrassed by their membership. The very organization that is so proud of their Torah for the Troops program has no standards or supervision over their endorsee here. Yes, our leader here has a Torah from them, although he never has Saturday services and there is nobody that can read from Torah. It is petty anti-Chabad politics and discrimination against Torah observant Jews that is creating an intolerable situation here for us and soldiers deserving support. We have been the Jewish Representatives at another base and we did not discriminate against non-Orthodox soldiers and family members at our Shabbat table. There were no Orthodox Jews, and almost every couple was in a mixed marriage. I asked the JWB for a Torah then and they said if I could not guarantee a minyan each week, it would not be possible. Wonder why they made the exception here? In Italy we had to turn to the Italian Chabad community and Aleph. I guess that is being held against us by the JWB now. Our greatest incentive was Ahavas Yisroel and love of the Torah. That principle should unite all Jews to take care of each other. I would appreciate any suggestions to help us bring Jews together here and get the JWB to really support our Jewish soldiers.
Great article!