When I first entered college, a Reform Jew from Santa Monica, I had never heard of Chabad. Apparently this makes me rather typical: According to a recently published landmark survey, the Hertog study of Chabad on Campus, the 80 percent of students who become involved with Chabad at their university have no previous experience with Chabad.
But, like the students in the study, I couldn’t be more grateful for the home and education provided by Chabad at my alma mater, U.C. Santa Cruz. The school acronym is UCSC; our whimsical, quick-witted Chabad rabbi called his house “JewCSC.”
The first time I went, I was dragged by a sorority sister to a Shabbat dinner. She had been begging me for months; I was resistant. I had never liked Jewish youth groups, and was a Jewish summer camp dropout. My expectations were that this would be geeky at best and cliquey at worst — probably both.
To my shock, surprise and comeuppance, my experience at Santa Cruz Chabad was nothing like the Jewish gatherings of the past. Previously, I avoided Jewish spaces in part because I never felt like my level of Jewishness was “enough.” I didn’t speak Hebrew, I didn’t have family in New York, and I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to eat leavened bread for all eight days of Passover. Jewish community events are often intended to reaffirm your standing as an insider; I usually left feeling more like an outsider.
But Chabad was different.
Even though many of rituals were foreign to me (I didn’t know the blessing for washing hands, for example), I felt like that was part of the fun. Lots of students were there with varying levels of Judaism. Lots of students came to learn.
Compared with most of my Jewish peers (although non-Jews came to Chabad as well), my familiarity with Jewish customs neared entry level, and as I began to attend more regularly, I made a few rookie mistakes. I didn’t know the tradition of not talking after washing your hands, example. One time, in a particularly embarrassing mishap, the rabbi’s wife asked to be in touch. So I immediately whipped out my cellphone and asked to input her phone number — completely oblivious to the fact that you weren’t supposed to do so on Shabbat.
But thanks to the atmosphere set by the ever-welcoming rabbi and his wife, I no longer felt like I was a “bad Jew” for not knowing all the practices. On the contrary: I finally felt like my Judaism was enough.
Wanting to be frank, I once asked the rabbi’s wife a rather pointed question. “I’m not kosher,” I said. “How does it not bother you serving people like me dinner every Friday night?” She didn’t miss a beat: “It makes me happy to know that even once a week you’re eating a meal that’s kosher!”
That was such a radically different view of religion than I was used to. Rather than religion being about what I was doing wrong, it was about what I was doing right. In her eyes, I wasn’t -20 meals that week for eating treif, I was +1 for eating kosher.
So I kept racking up my +1s. I came to Chabad almost every week, not just for meals but for classes, too. Contrary to many of the preconceived notions about Chabad’s backwards treatment of women, the first class I took with the rabbi was Women in the Bible — progressive even by my Santa Cruz feminist standards. In truth, it was hard for me to distinguish how much of what I was learning was from Chabad or the rabbi himself, who was no ordinary character. He peppered his sermons with Jewish mysticism and taught a class in kabbalistic thought — one of the most mind-altering experiences of my Santa Cruz education.
I found myself asking about everything — from the meaning of life to rationality vs. intuition to if the musician I had a crush on was really my soul mate — and wanting Jewish answers. Now, not only did I attend Shabbat, but I was usually the last to leave, spending my Friday nights in deep discussions at the Chabad house until 11. I’d also bring along my non-Jewish friends, who were fascinated by the display of culture and the soul-searching intellectual exchanges. I would guide them through as an ambassador, a complete turnaround from who I once was. It surprised no one when I became a Jewish studies major my sophomore year.
From there, my Jewish path only acquired momentum. I became editor of the UCSC Jewish newspaper, Leviathan, giving an announcement at every Shabbat dinner to join our staff. At one dinner, I met a representative from the Zionist Organization of America, who invited me on a trip to Israel. That led to my becoming a columnist for the Huffington Post and speaking before the U.C. Regents board in defense of an Israeli student. I had a job lined up with the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs before I graduated college, and, finally, I was a commencement speaker at my university; the subject of my speech was the Holocaust.
Now I am based in Washington, D.C., writing for the Israel Project, and have had my work published in the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal — opportunities I know would have been impossible without Chabad.
Never did I expect to like, let alone fall in love with, Judaism and Israel advocacy, but, as the Yiddish saying goes, “Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht” — “We plan, God laughs.”
Amanda Botfeld graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 2015 and is now a research associate for the Israel Project. She is on Twitter @amandabotfeld.