Twenty-eight years after its inception, Chabad House on Campus Pittsburgh welcomed colleagues and friends last week for an evening of celebration.
“Tonight is not a showcase of what Chabad House on Campus does, but an opportunity to thank others,” Sara Weinstein, co-director of the Jewish campus organization, informed the roomful of attendees at the University of Pittsburgh’s O’Hara Center Ballroom in Oakland.
“When I think of Chabad on Campus what I’m struck by is that it’s building partnerships across universities,” explained David Finegold, president of Chatham University.
The presence of representatives from the city’s institutions of higher learning exemplified the group’s locally forged connections.
“Chabad House on Campus has been a pretty significant presence for 28 years, not only at Pitt, but at the surrounding campuses as well,” noted Kenyon Bonner, dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh.
It may be easier to list the institutions that Chabad House on Campus doesn’t serve. Since the organization first arrived in Pittsburgh in 1988, it has developed a presence at nine area colleges and universities; in addition to Pitt and Chatham, it serves Jewish students at Community College of Allegheny County, Robert Morris University, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Point Park University, Duquesne University, Carlow University and Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
But according to Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein, the organization’s director, “Our goal is to expand to more campuses. Our goal is to touch every Jew.”
Increasing engagement is integral not only to Chabad House on Campus’ mission, but to that of higher education in general, explained Sean McGreevey, the evening’s honoree and Chatham’s former assistant dean.
“Higher education can’t just be business as usual,” said McGreevey, who returned to Pittsburgh for the evening’s celebration from his position as dean of students at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. Campuses must increase opportunities for student engagement, because those experiences are about “doing things with people and not for people.”
He added that such encounters forever shape students’ mentalities.
Recalling his own interactions with Chabad House on Campus, McGreevey shared a photograph of him atop Chatham’s sukkah and humorously reflected on “when the rabbi taught this pasty Irish kid how to build a sukkah.”
“Shmuel and Sara will stop at nothing to serve us, our students and our campus,” he said.
Substantiating McGreevey’s sentiment is a recent study of 2,400 Jewish graduates and their engagement with campus-based Chabad organizations across the country.
The independent study, led by Mark Rosen, associate professor at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, was commissioned and funded by the Hertog Foundation. According to JTA, it identified particular questions regarding Chabad House on Campus International, an umbrella organization whose presence includes more than 210 campuses worldwide and seeks not only to “be a ‘home away from home’ for Jews on campus,” but also to offer “a wealth of social, educational and spiritual programs at campuses across America and around the globe.”
Of interest to the study’s authors was “who comes to Chabad at college campuses, how Chabad works with undergraduate students and what impact Chabad involvement during college has on the post-college lives of young Jewish adults,” they explained in the executive summary.
What researchers found was that while Chabad centers are run by Orthodox married couples, most student participants are not from Orthodox backgrounds. According to the study, 11 percent identified themselves as being raised Orthodox, 39 percent as Conservative, 32 percent as Reform and 10 percent as growing up without a denominational affiliation.
Researchers also discovered that “the majority of those who are frequent participants are affected in ways that bring them closer to the mainstream Jewish community after college.”
Such impact includes a “broad range of post-college Jewish attitudes and behaviors,” noted the authors, including influences on “religious beliefs and practices, Jewish friendships, Jewish community involvement, Jewish learning, dating and marriage, emotional attachment to Israel, and the importance of being Jewish.”
These outcomes are largely achieved through personal connections developed in college between students and Chabad center directors, which typically begin with Friday night dinners, but are strengthened by volunteer activities, classes on Jewish subjects, individual meetings and sustained communication after graduation.
“Chabad House on Campus was such a meaningful part of my college experience,” said Rona Kaufman-Kitchen, an alumni awardee at Chabad House on Campus Pittsburgh’s event last week.
Kaufman-Kitchen recalled being a student at the University of Pittsburgh more than two decades ago and participating in Semester at Sea, a study abroad program. When she and other Jewish students realized that they would be aboard the ship during Passover, and without kosher food, they reached out to the Weinsteins at Chabad House on Campus. Shortly thereafter, boxes of kosher food, candles and matzahs arrived.
Now an assistant professor at Duquesne University School of Law, Kaufman-Kitchen’s friendship with the Weinsteins has continued for nearly three decades.
“For 28 years Jewish students have found comfort, friendship and family within the walls of the Chabad House,” said Bonner.
And yet the work is nowhere near complete, explained Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools and director of Lubavitch of Western PA. “Chabad on Campus is not satisfied until every single student is taken care of.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.