Chabad on Campus

The magazine New Voices, America’s only national magazine written by and for Jewish college students, recently put out an issue they are calling “The Lubavitch Issue.” In it, they explore the movement and look at the rise of Chabad on college campuses. One piece immediately caught our eye, though. Titled “The Trouble with Chabad Rabbi’s Wife,” writer Josh Nathan-Kazis shares his opinion of why “the Jewish establishment should stay out of the Chabad house.”

Josh’s thesis is that “most programming for young Jews is supported out of a desire to prevent intermarriage.” This, he says, has been termed “Jewish continuity.” At JOI we think Jewish continuity includes interfaith families raising Jewish children, but Josh’s point is that Jewish campus organizations put a huge emphasis on in-marriage. The promotion of Jewish continuity, at its best, empowers young Jews, he says. But at its worst, “the anxiety surrounding continuity causes the community to let statistics drown out content, values, and ideology. Such is the case with the growing support within the mainstream Jewish establishment for Chabad’s activities on college campuses.”

To be fair, we do support Chabad’s approach to outreach, but we part ways on a number of issues (namely interfaith marriage). But this article isn’t about whether or not it’s good to have Chabad on campus – Josh is instead making the argument that it’s not the best idea for the “Jewish establishment” to send students to Chabad in the name of Jewish continuity. Chabad does not stand for the type of Judaism that will resonate with unengaged or unaffiliated Jews, he says. There are strict divisions between men and women that “is anathema to the egalitarian ideals of less traditional denominations.”

Furthermore, while students are probably smart enough to contextualize and compartmentalize the experience, this ends up being insulting to Chabad because “the Jewish community uses such a justification to get around the ideological differences,” turning the experience into something of a spectacle, rather than a deeply rooted religious experience. He ends the piece by saying:

The appropriate response to the fears of intermarriage is not to throw Jewish experiences indiscriminately at young Jews, hoping something will stick long enough for them to circumcise their sons. Rather, it should challenge the community to rethink and to innovate, to be exciting and vibrant, to stand for something and not to compromise. In farming the work of continuity out to Chabad, the mainstream Jewish establishment throws away its own values, and wastes an opportunity to make real contributions to Jewish life.

This is a refreshingly bold statement, and one that we agree with. Most programming for young people gets rejected because it comes off as disingenuous, as Josh implies. And while Chabad does great outreach work (we even blogged about them on Friday), they represent a small fraction of the worldwide Jewish community. That’s why we have been working with Hillel over the last couple of years to, in their words, “provoke a renaissance in Jewish life.” In response to the piece, one commenter online said “Chabad isn’t going to provide an answer for most Jewish college students.” That person is right. Today’s young Jews are more diverse in terms of ideology and background than ever before – and it’s up to us to make sure they have all the tools and options necessary to establish a lasting connection to Judaism.

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