Chabad Taking First, Cautious Steps in Israeli Campuses

Yarden Skop
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Yarden Skop

Over the past two years, Chabad has begun operating on Israeli university and college campuses, offering students Shabbat meals, holiday activities, discounts on tickets to various performances and, in some cases, stipends for attending classes on “Jewish subjects.” The Hasidic movement now runs activities on more than 20 campuses.

As far as religious studies are concerned, scholarships of 1,000 shekels ($257) are given in exchange for attending eight weekly, two-hour classes and one national event. In this Chabad is hardly a pioneer, and its activities are modest compared to what other organizations and movements offer locally. For example, the Religious Services Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration offers a scholarship of 4,000 shekels a semester to students willing to devote 4.5 hours weekly to Jewish studies classes.

Students say that they do not see it as an effort to make them religiously observant. Yarden Nidam, a student at the Sapir Academic College in the south who has received a Chabad scholarship, said, “I’m totally secular and detached. But Rabbi Yair [Yair Rosenthal, the Chabad rabbi on campus], is very friendly; he sits with the students on the lawn, and on Hanukkah he and another Chabadniks go to the bars at night and light hanukkiot [Hanukkah lamp].

“One day he was sitting with us on the grass and told us about the scholarship, and since we students are very pressured it sounded good. I would have preferred to do volunteer work a few times a week and make more money, but between work and school I have no time. When we understood it was only eight sessions, we, three secular friends, decided to try it.”

She and her friends were surprised. “We thought it would be a Torah class, but it wasn’t,” Nidam said. “He talks about life, about different aspects of happiness and faith, about what’s important in life, about ethics. There are refreshments, coffee and tea. It happens on campus, in one of the classrooms. Nothing was said there that was inflammatory or that upset me, and I’m the most critical person there is. When I trekked in Central America I didn’t go into a single Chabad house because I didn’t want them to start with me. But that wasn’t what these meetings were like.”

Chabad’s method of operation on all the campuses is similar. A rabbi sent to live near the campus forges a relationship with the student union in an effort to conduct joint activities and to offer the scholarship. Apparently, Chabad understands that their activities on campus might be construed as “missionizing,” which is why it treads carefully and tries to work through the student government.

It doesn’t always work as planned. At Oranim Academic College in the north, the school administration does not allow the scholarship classes to take place on campus.

“We take pains not to hold activities that are religiously or politically connected,” explained college president Prof. Yaara Bar-On. “No party affiliated or religious organization operates on campus. Our dean of students, who is himself a secular rabbi, was in contact with them – very respectful contacts – and asked that the classes be held off campus so that a student who wants to attend knows that the campus isn’t sponsoring it.”

She added, “I don’t think [Chabad] is a missionary group, but it is a group whose objective is to bring people closer to religion, and I won’t take any action that might create the impression, even if mistaken, that Oranim is trying to bring students closer to religion.”

Chabad’s activities on Sapir’s campus also raised some controversy when it worked with the student union to organize an appearance by ultra-Orthodox entertainer Shuli Rand at a low price, but also used some of the proceeds to print the Tanya, a seminal work of Chabad Hasidic philosophy. The Sapir Student Union spokesman, Aviad Museri, said that the “printing” consisted of someone in the corridor of the hall where the performance took place stapling pages from the work together and distributing it.

“Is it wrong for the union to contribute to the printing of a certain book at the request of a certain population?” Museri asked. “That’s the question. And if so, then we can ask whether it’s right to conduct a day for the Bedouin community on campus. On Sigd, the Ethiopian holiday, we had an amazing production here and invested student union money in it. Is that also invalid?”

The Chabad on Campus organization said that the classes are a pilot project that is part of an international program of Jewish studies sponsored by the Jewish Learning Institute, which operates at 290 universities all over the world.

“The content deals with basic concepts from the world of Judaism, with the aim of providing information and broadening horizons by presenting the sources and conducting an open discussion about the issues being studied,” the organization said. “The dialogue with the universities and the connection with all the program’s participants are the foundation stones for continuing the project.”

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