For Rabbi Eitan Webb, it’s about relationships.
In the years since Rabbi Webb and his wife, Rebbetzin Gitty Webb (below, right), founded the Scharf Family Chabad House at Princeton University 14 years ago, the couple has been to more than a hundred weddings of students they’ve mentored, officiating at many of them. They have a large cardboard box overflowing with cards and letters from former students.
Princeton’s Chabad House figures prominently in a new study of the outreach organization’s growing influence on college campuses across the country, and the impact it has on Jewish students. Commissioned and funded by the education-focused Hertog Foundation, and led by Brandeis associate professor Mark I. Rosen, the study surveyed 2,400 alumni between the ages of 21 and 29 who were on a campus Chabad-Lubavitch center email list.
The topic caught the attention of Roger Hertog, the foundation’s founder, because unlike other organizations that aim to engage the next generation, such as the highly effective, but highly expensive programs such as Birthright Israel, Princeton’s Chabad House is fully self-sustaining. Donations from parents and alumni alone are enough to support two shluchim couples and their families, extensive programming and, perhaps most costly, copious amounts of free food served on Shabbat and at other communal events.
“This past year, 2015, we received donations from 508 parents and alumni,” Rabbi Webb said. “That’s a number that says there’s a huge segment of Chabad alumni that are all over the religious spectrum who find our work to be sufficiently valuable to fund it.”
But for Rabbi Webb and other Chabad campus leaders, the satisfaction lies not so much in staying in the black as in the long-lasting relationships he and his wife have continued with hundreds of students (some shown below) who pass through their center each year.
“It stays gratifying, and every single year we reach new people and new people reach us,” Rabbi Webb said. “Every person has different hopes and dreams and aspirations. And taking the time to sit down and think about each one and to care about each one is a large part of what we do.”
Most people picture Chabad’s more than 4,400 shluchim, couples who serve as emissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, traveling to remote areas of the globe where there are only a few Jews and where their outpost might be the only Jewish resource in town.
But over the past two decades, the Chabad movement began putting an enormous amount of resources into translating the community-based model to work on college campuses.
In 2000, Chabad on Campus had set up shop at roughly 30 schools across the U.S. Today there are 198 Chabad centers dedicated to serving college students in the U.S. alone and centers in multiple cities in other countries. While the couples are expected to create self-sustaining institutions, most shluchim ventures start out with three years’ worth of seed money from philanthropist George Rohr.
Rohr, who supports Chabad’s work on 144 of the 198 participating campuses, said the Hertog study “confirm[s] empirically what I (and many others) have known instinctively for 16 years.”
“I have for decades observed the extraordinary work, entrepreneurial spirit and self-sacrifice of Chabad emissaries all over the world,” Rohr said in an email interview. “It became clear to me that helping to roll out this model across campuses in North America would be a uniquely productive philanthropic investment.”
In addition to confirming that Chabad is effective in engaging Jewish students from all backgrounds in Jewish life during college, a more surprising takeaway from the study was that the centers help strengthen Jewish communities across the spectrum, from Reform to Orthodox, with alumni of the programs overwhelmingly staying in the denomination in which they were raised.
“If Chabad’s goal is to create more Chabadnicks, then they’re a complete and utter failure,” said Rosen. “They [participants] actually get closer to the mainstream Jewish world.
“Very few become Orthodox, nobody becomes Chabad,” he said. “They [shluchim] do exactly what they claim to do,” he said, which is to strengthen Jewish identity across the spectrum. “The big surprise is that Orthodox chasidic couples create an impact that ripples throughout the Jewish world.”
Another major takeaway for the study’s authors, which also include Steven M. Cohen, Arielle Levites and Ezra Kopelowitz, were the lifelong ties formed between Chabad participants and shluchim.
“Here we see that seven years after graduation, half of all alumni were still in touch with the rabbi and rebbetzin,” Rosen said. “Really, it’s a personal rabbi.”
Rebbetzin Rivkah Slonin, who founded the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University in 1985 with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim, is also constantly in touch with alumni.
“Every day I speak to a few alumni, and I have alumni whose children are here now. Some of these alumni are like sisters,” she said.
“I love them. I enjoy them, I really enjoy spending time with them," said Rebbetzin Slonin (shown here with a student). Something that’s been really gratifying is seeing how many of our alumni have become Jewish leaders in their own Jewish communities,” she said.
Hertog, a founding partner of an investment research and management firm and alumnus of City College of New York, has devoted most of his education-focused philanthropy to secular causes, such as building a public library in the Bronx and funding a study on the effectiveness of charter schools. But to him, studying the efficacy of Chabad on Campus was a natural progression of his philanthropic efforts.
“This isn’t so much rocket science, the funding of this study,” he told The Jewish Week, noting that Chabad rarely agrees to let outside quantitative researchers study their communities.
“Chabad on Campus has a large pool of college students, a rare, unique population. If you could find out what the implications for some number of students, you’d really have a very good data set.”
His big takeaway from the study was that it was the nonjudgmental, family atmosphere that caused students to keep coming back.
“A [key] element is the genius of the rebbe. There’s a rabbi, there’s a rebbetzin, there are children running around — it’s a warm environment, but not an imposing environment. “That’s a very good cocktail,” he said.
The theology of Chabad is also important, he added. “Chabad theology is grounded in the mandate to love every Jew, irrespective of where they are on that spectrum. That’s very rare also. And they [students] are not questioned: ‘Do you do this or don’t you do this? Are you kosher or are you not kosher?’ The love of every Jew is really critical.”
NYU senior Michael Lefkovits, of Livingston, N.J., found his way to Chabad House Bowery (above, left) in Lower Manhattan during his freshman year. He came to the school following a year studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. For him, Chabad wasn’t so much about introducing him to Judaism as allowing him to continue his Judaic studies while in college. He learns four mornings a week — two days a week at Chabad and the other two at Hillel.
But he’s seen many less observant Jews become active at Chabad House Bowery (shown above, with Rebbetzin Sarah Korn at far left).
“Chabad allows you to become comfortable with Judaism on your own terms,” he said.
For Danielle Stiefel (at right), who transferred to NYU her sophomore year, the main pull was community. A few weeks into the school year, the Princeton, N.J., native went to a Chabad House Bowery Shabbat dinner and immediately felt at home.
“Everyone came up to me and said: ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?’ And I just felt an immediate sense of community,” she said.
Now a senior, she visits the organization’s modern loft space several times a week for board meetings, Jewish learning and communal meals. And also just to hang out, see friends and study.
“I think this is really where I feel that community feeling,” she said. “It’s just a welcoming place.”
Staff writer Steve Lipman contributed to this report.