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Study: Campus Chabads Reinforce Students’ Jewish Identities

A recent survey shows that Chabad’s tradition-based outreach has a positive impact on college students across the Jewish observance spectrum

Armin Rosen
October 11, 2016
Facebook / Rohr Chabad House at Columbia
Facebook / Rohr Chabad House at Columbia
Facebook / Rohr Chabad House at Columbia
Facebook / Rohr Chabad House at Columbia

Last month, a team of researchers published the most important study to date about the impact of Chabad’s outreach on college campuses, surveying 2,400 students from 22 colleges who had graduated in 2007 or later. In sum, the study found that the higher a student’s degree of Chabad involvement, the more likely they are to have their Jewish identities positively reinforced.

The Hasidic movement’s student centers host holiday events, religious services, introductory-level classes on Judaism, Shabbat dinners, and other programming aimed at engaging Jewish students in Judaism-related activities, with the broad aim of connecting them with their religious heritage and with their fellow Jews. What sets Chabad apart from other campus Jewish groups like Hillel, and what makes the group somewhat controversial in some circles, is that it’s a Hasidic sect whose campus work is largely focused on the non-Orthodox. A campus Chabad center is always headed by a Chabad rabbi and rebbetzen, services are sex-segregated, and the group doesn’t shy away from its strong adherence to orthodox halakhah, or Jewish religious law. Chabad practice may be more traditionalist or less pluralistic than the American Jewish mainstream—but the report found that its campus outreach is actually having the effect of drawing students to that mainstream, rather than driving them to Chabad’s distinct version of orthodoxy. Neither Chabad nor the students it serves see a contradiction between praying in a reform minyan at Hillel on a Friday night, and then soaking in some matzah ball soup and wholesome yiddishkeit vibes at the Chabad house afterwards.

The authors reported that rate of Chabad participation had a statistically significant impact on 18 different measures of Jewish practice and identification among students from a reform or non-denominational background and 16 of 18 measures for students from a conservative background—students who frequently attended classes, religious services, Shabbat meals, or holidays at on-campus center were more likely to feel an attachment to Israel, date Jews, and even believe in the existence of God. The report found that students tend to stay in touch with their campus’s Chabad shliach, or emissary, after graduation, with Chabad rabbis becoming an enduring post-graduation feature in some students’ lives.

Remarkably, the researchers found “no appreciable difference in Chabad impact for men versus women” and no difference in level of Chabad participation of either gender—although they did uncover that male students tended to engage more closely with their campus center’s rabbi, while female students worked more often with their center’s rebbetzin. This suggests that the movement’s more traditional gender politics might have an impact on the substance of student engagement. But for students, the end-result of that engagement isn’t a turn towards traditionalism, but towards Judaism more generally. Overall, “the data suggests that the majority of those who are frequent participants are affected in ways that bring them closer to the mainstream Jewish community after college.”

The report was based on over 2,400 surveys of alumni contacted through Chabad email lists at 22 different campus centers, along with interviews and focus groups involving students, Chabad emissaries, and university officials. The study bursts one of the more pervasive myths about the Hassidic sect: Chabad’s campus outreach is not a brainwashing operation. The report found that Chabad isn’t involved in even the most basic sectarian proselytizing, with less than 1 percent of surveyed students identifying as Chabadniks after college. According to Mark Rosen, an expert on organizational behavior at Brandeis University and one of the authors of the study, there are “no demands or expectations that you have to act a certain way or even believe a certain way” at a Chabad campus center.

The report, which was commissioned by The Hertog Foundation, an “educational philanthropy” founded by investor and Tikvah Foundation chairman Roger Hertog, vindicates Chabad’s approach to student outreach. As Chabad explains it, the overall aim of reaching college-age students can be traced to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe and one of the originators of Chabad’s now-global outreach efforts. “The Rebbe focused a tremendous amount of attention on students, recognizing their youthful quest for real answers, their undaunted appreciation of challenges, and their abhorrence of condescension,” Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, co-director of Chabad house at the University of Pennsylvania and president of Chabad on Campus International, noted by email.

Yet the rapid expansion of Chabad’s campus outreach post-dates Schneerson’s leadership of the movement, which ended with the rebbe’s death in 1994: According to Chabad, in 2000, the movement had a presence on 100 college campuses, with 35 student centers overall. to 2000, “Chabad operated at less than 30 campuses). Today, thanks in part to a number of donations, including those from private equity investor George Rohr, Chabad says it now has a presence on 500 campuses (at 264 students centers, 198 of which are in the U.S. alone).

Chabadnik theology and religious practice provides the underlying motivation for the group’s activities: without Chabad’s belief system, rooted in centuries-old Jewish mystical teachings and Schneerson’s past leadership and example, there would be no Chabad campus outreach to begin with. It’s Judaism, or, more accurately, social interaction in a Jewish context, that Chabad is offering college students, rather than the certainty or rigor of Chabadnik practice. Rosen said that it’s often Shabbat dinner and a happening social scene, rather than anything overtly religious, that convinces more secular Jewish students to set foot inside a Chabad house in the first place.

He likens the group’s campus outreach to a church-run soup kitchen. “The religious group might go in the back room and pray before they serve the soup, but they just serve soup. They’re not proselytizing to the people who come to the soup kitchen.” Chabad emissaries, Rosen said, “keep their personal beliefs separate from the work they do with the people they serve.”

At the same time, the report suggests that Chabad’s appeal for Jewish students is intimately tied to what Chabad practices and believes. Students aren’t becoming Orthodox as a result of Chabad—but they’re drawn to Chabad partly because of its orthodoxy.

As Rosen explained, “At Chabad you’re always going to have an Orthodox Jewish couple that’s trained in the Chabad movement. You have this ideologically homogeneity, so to speak.” This is in contrast to campus Hillels, which often function as umbrella organizations for various sub-groups serving different Jewish constituencies. A Hillel is expected to be all things to all Jews. Chabad offers something more focused and more coherent—an experience rooted in the clarities of an authentic Jewish past, rather than the messy pluralism of the present-day.

But the study dispels the widespread notion that Chabad is somehow crowding out Hillel. The authors found convincing evidence that students seek different things out of each organization and often participate in both. The authors were still careful in articulating the organizations’ differences in fundamental outlook: as they write, Chabad is “inclusive, but not pluralist.” Rosen says that Chabad isn’t all things to all Jews, but “Jews in one room doing the same thing.”

That might actually be part of the draw. As the authors write, “for some students, the elements that set Chabad apart may be the source of their appeal. They may be seeking more authenticity in their lives, finding it in the vision of Judaism offered by Chabad. Alternately, they may find that the conservative elements of Chabad serve as critique and counterpoint for a prevailing ‘anything goes’ campus atmosphere.”

Chabad’s campus centers aren’t turning students into staunch Jewish traditionalists. But they’re demonstrating the uses and virtues of traditionalism, even or perhaps especially within acutely secular environments. Chabad provides something that Jewish college students clearly feel they need, and that Hillel or more progressive Jewish environments or modern-day secular culture aren’t as equipped to provide them. Crucially, that “something” isn’t a full-on embrace of Chabad-type Judaism. Although it’s conclusions are limited to a single part of a single group’s outreach work, the study is a corrective to the false notion that in the Jewish world, traditionalism and pluralism are necessarily in conflict.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.