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