Surprising findings in campus Chabad study

New Jewish students at several Washington universities cruise the Potomac River on Sept. 21. The cruise was sponsored by Chabad at George Washington University. Photo by Chabad GW/ Americans Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)
New Jewish students at several Washington universities cruise the Potomac River on Sept. 21. The cruise was sponsored by Chabad at George Washington University.
Photo by Chabad GW/ Americans Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad)

During Shepherd Baum’s time at the University of Maryland, he met Chabad Rabbi Eli Backman, who would often visit his Jewish fraternity house trying to form a minyan.

“He wouldn’t force anyone, but it was hard to say no to him,” Baum recalled. These impromptu minyanim were the extent of Baum’s relationship with Backman in the late 1990s.

In 2012, Baum’s parents were struck by two cars while hailing a taxi in Manhattan. His mother, Denise, was left with minor leg injuries, but his father, Rubin, was killed. The funeral took place on the day before Yom Kippur, with hundreds of guests who knew the Baum family.

“I’ll never forget who walked in — Rabbi Backman,” said Baum, 38. “This short, little rabbi with his beard gives me a hug.”

With Yom Kippur approaching and college students ready to descend on the rabbi’s house for the holiday, Backman had to turn around and return to College Park.

Recounting the story, Baum spoke with wonder about the rabbi’s gesture. “That made me realize: ‘Holy smokes. That’s a special human being.’”

The Chasidic movement known as Chabad-Lubavitch, present on only 30 campuses before 2000, now has a presence on nearly 200 with its brand of Judaism: aiming to be inclusive and tolerant, but unabashedly Orthodox. Now an internal study by Chabad aims to show what Chabad does — and does not do — on campuses across the country.

The survey, drawing from Chabad email lists, garnered responses from 2,400 alumni of 22 campuses. The respondents graduated from college after 2007.

While the campus Chabads sent email addresses, the survey was commissioned and funded by the Hertog Foundation, a conservative educational group.

Here are six findings:

Most Chabad participants aren’t Orthodox.

Chabad’s programs and rituals are run by a Chasidic couple, but their target audience is more religiously diverse. According to the survey, only 11 percent of respondents were raised Orthodox. Most were raised either Conservative (39 percent) or Reform (32 percent). Ten percent had no denomination.

But those demographics vary by school. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), oversees the Chabad activities at George Washington, American, Galludet and Georgetown universities. He said the “overwhelming majority” of students who come to him are not Orthodox.

Rabbi Mendel Deitsch, who runs Chabad activities at George Mason University, took it a step further.

“I have yet to meet an Orthodox Jew” at GMU, he said.

Backman, estimated the University of Maryland’s Jewish population is close to a 50-50 split between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, although he acknowledged that his College Park school may be an outlier.

The campus’ Hillel is one of the most active Hillel centers in the country.

Participants at Chabad don’t feel pressure to become Orthodox.

The survey also found that Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins, despite their own philosophy, didn’t pressure students to become Orthodox. Rather, in the words of the survey authors, any Jewish commandment fulfilled by a student, “even if only performed once, is considered a spiritual achievement.”

“It’s not possible ‘to merely make’ someone Orthodox, but it is possible to present opportunities where they will want to become more observant themselves,” said Shemtov.

This philosophy expressed itself in the survey results. Most respondents said Chabad encouraged religious observance “a little” or “not at all.” Most felt no discomfort at being pressured to be more observant. And nearly two-thirds felt that Chabad did not promote Orthodoxy over Conservative or Reform Judaism.

Nor was Chabad participation a guarantor of remaining observant. Forty-five percent of Orthodox students with a high level of Chabad participation say they are no longer Orthodox.

“I think that Chabad is not based on selling a specific form of Judaism. We’re not looking for people to become Orthodox,” said Deitsch.

Most people who attended Chabad in college don’t go to Chabad now.

Even those who hung around Chabad in college don’t seek out Chabad as adults. Only 21 percent of high-participation students said they have attended Chabad regularly after college. Two-thirds of all respondents said they haven’t sought out a Chabad at all in the past year.

Deitsch said although people may not seek out Chabad after they leave campus, “they keep up the relationship with their Chabad rabbi or rebbetzin.”

He, Shemtov and Backman recounted stories of former students reconnecting post-graduation. They each stressed the importance of these personal relationships in making Chabad on campus successful.

This rang particularly true for Baum.

“I was a kid who graduated 20 years ago and [Backman] still cares about me just as if I was still there,” said Baum. “That’s Chabad; that’s what it’s about.”

The more right wing you are politically, the more you go to Chabad.

One measure that did correlate with Chabad attendance was political ideology. Campuses may have the reputation of being liberal bastions, but the survey found that campus Chabads may be the opposite. Only 16 percent of students with a liberal ideology said they had a “high” level of participation at Chabad, while 59 percent of liberal students had a low level of participation.

Among conservative (small c) students, the numbers were more evenly split. Thirty-nine percent had a high participation level, versus 36 percent with a low level of participation.

If that’s true, then Backman — a self-described “political junkie” — would never know it, and that is what he prefers.

“I deliberately steer away from pointed political conversations,” said Backman. While he enjoys discussing issues — he’s teaching a class that interweaves this year’s electoral flashpoints with Torah study — he said that asking students how they vote creates a barrier, which is antithetical to Chabad’s mission.

Chabad participants are more likely to believe in God and date Jewish.

But the survey did find that Chabad participation made Jewish practice and belief more likely. Three-quarters of unaffiliated students who had a high level of participation in their campus Chabad believe in God. Among unaffiliated students who had little or no participation in Chabad, only 37 percent believe in God.

The split grows wider when it comes to the importance of dating Jews. Sixty-one percent of unaffiliated students who had a high level of Chabad participation said it’s “very important” to date Jews. Only 17 percent of unaffiliated students who had little to no Chabad participation agreed.

Across denominations, a high level of Chabad participation correlated with higher levels of belief in God and prioritizing dating Jews.

Chabad does not have a drinking problem.

If Chabads have earned a reputation of playing loose with alcohol — that is, offering wine and spirits as a lure and a lubricant at Shabbat meals and the like — the data don’t bear it out. Shabbat dinner is the central activity at Chabad — 91 percent of attendees said they had gone to a Friday night meal — but the wine didn’t flow freely. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said alcohol use at Chabad was “not at all” excessive. Only 4 percent said it was — though it was unclear what students consider “excessive” alcohol use.

Shemtov said: “Other than perhaps wine for Kiddush etc., we don’t allow alcohol for minors, and that is standardized across the country.”
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Justin Katz is a WJW staff writer.
Ben Sales is a writer for JTA News and Features.

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