Chabad study: College students want personal attention

Jewish college students crave individualized Jewish experiences, personal attention from their rabbis and a “home away from home,” according to a new study of Chabad Shabbat programs on campus.

The semester-long research project, led by Barry Chazan of Hebrew University, is the first in-depth examination of Chabad campus activities. It’s the latest in a slew of recent studies of young Jews.

Key findings from the Chabad study indicate that, rather than running away from Judaism during their college years, many students seek spirituality and the comforts of a family-centered Shabbat experience, and respond well to a Jewish educator who gives them personal, individualized attention.

Students pointed to the personality of a Chabad emissary as the most significant and influential part of the total experience, mentioning how important it was for them to be remembered by name, brought into a family’s home and treated with respect by an adult.

Each Chabad House is run by an emissary couple, a Chabad rabbi and his wife, who open their home to students for classes, meals, holiday celebrations and informal gatherings.

The 112 Chabad Houses affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in this country serve more than 179 U.S. campuses, including U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. Around the world, 238 campuses are served.

Twenty-two Friday evening programs conducted by Chabad at five U.S. campuses were observed last fall for the study. Students were asked why they attend Chabad Shabbat meals and how they feel about the experience, in order to help Chabad campus emissaries develop better programs and to model the experience for other Jewish campus groups.

New York philanthropist George Rohr, speaking for the Chabad on Campus National Foundation, said the study will primarily benefit Chabad campus emissaries looking to improve their programming, but he suggested that Hillel directors and other Jewish educators, as well as members of Jewish communities near campuses, can learn from it.

“Anybody who has a home and can expose college kids to a Shabbat family experience on campus can do this,” he said.

The study also suggested that episodic Jewish experiences such as a Shabbat program can have profound impact on a student’s Jewish identity.

“Young adulthood is more episodic than it once was,” Chazan said. “Sometimes the Jewish model is too locked into the ‘full menu,’ the total scenario — marry a Jewish partner, have two or three kids, send them to day school, summers in Israel.”

He said Chabad and other campus groups might branch out from Shabbat and use other Jewish rituals and holidays to reach young Jews in the same way.

At a May 25 panel discussion in Manhattan, Chabad emissaries emphasized the non-programmatic nature of their Shabbat “programs” as the key to their success.

“When students come to the Chabad House, they don’t want another academic presentation,” said Esther Goldstein, emissary at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “They come for the casual setting. You don’t realize how much you can learn informally.”

Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven Cohen, who took part in a panel discussion on the study’s findings, believes the research has relevance for any Jewish educator. Whereas study leader Chazan “doubts” that a nonobservant educator could present students with an authentic Shabbat experience, Cohen, who teaches at the Reform movement’s flagship rabbinical seminary, says that it not so.

“There’s no one right kind of educator, just as there is no one kind of student,” he said. “Teach who you are as a Jew, but be the Jew who you want to teach. You can present your version of Jewish authenticity in a home environment that is personal and welcoming and genuine, that allows for individual autonomy.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.