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Chabad is Orthodox, but Jewish students it caters to are not

More than 1,000 Jewish college students from schools across North America and Europe participate in a havdalah ceremony -- a ritual that separates the Sabbath from the rest of the weekdays -- at the Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton, on Nov. 8, 2014, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Photo courtesy of Chabad.edu / Bentzi Sasson

(RNS) One of the most prominent Hasidic movements, with outposts on nearly 200 U.S. college campuses, isn’t steering students toward its brand of Orthodoxy. But it is surprising researchers with the bonds alumni maintain with its rabbis and their wives, known as “rebbetzins,” years after graduating.

“There are women who call the rebbetzin every Friday afternoon to wish them ‘Good Shabbos,’” said Mark Rosen, an associate professor at Brandeis University and lead author of a new study of 2,400 Jewish graduates and their interactions with Chabad.

“It’s really about these personal relationships. It’s like your personal rabbi.”

Chabad, which has more than 3,500 centers in more than 85 countries, is known for encouraging less-observant Jews to incrementally engage with their religious identity. Critics say it’s an effort to make Jews more Orthodox, but Chabad adamantly contests that. The results of the new study, “Chabad on Campus,” sponsored by the conservative-leaning Hertog Foundation, bear out Chabad’s claim, according to Rosen.

Only 15 of the 2,400 respondents said they joined ranks and identify as Chabad. About 88 percent of those who visited Chabad at least once do not identify as Orthodox.

“The data would say that Chabad is telling the truth. That’s less than 1 percent,” Rosen says. “These are Chabad lists.”

The study, which Rosen co-authored with Steven Cohen, Arielle Levites, and Ezra Kopelowitz, was a risk for Chabad, which shared 34,260 alumni emails with researchers.

“The results were going to be published irrespective of how they made Chabad look,” Rosen said. A total of 4,253 recipients opened the survey, and after researchers had removed 461 who didn’t identify as Jewish, they were left with 2,400.

Among those 2,400, who range in age from 21 to 29 and who graduated in 2007 or later, 60 percent who had participated regularly in Chabad during college — including attending meals, services or social events, and broaching friendships with a campus rabbi or rebbetzin — had been in touch with the rabbi or rebbetzin in the past 12 months about a Jewish concern or about an important personal issue. That tendency was the biggest surprise to Rosen, a Modern Orthodox Jew, who has learned about Chabad at family celebrations.

He had expected to find higher rates of college-age women lighting Sabbath candles, a shift in belief in God and more Orthodox views on marriage and dating among those who participated in Chabad events. He found those, but he was also surprised to find that Chabad affected every one of 18 indicators of Jewish practice.

Pavel Khazanov, 30, came to UCLA “generally on the Jewish identity track” in 2004, and he first interacted with Chabad as a sophomore. Khazanov, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1997, wasn’t observant at the time. But he occasionally stopped in to Chabad for dinner.

He credits his experiences at Chabad for his being Modern Orthodox today. He remains in touch with both the rabbi and rebbetzin at the UCLA Chabad. He also donates money on a monthly basis.

“Ideologically, I was never into the Chabad line of religion,” he said, explaining that he didn’t care for its mystical approach to faith.

And yet he speaks to the rabbi on the phone every few months, and he gets regular messages from him on Facebook.

“I am invested in the success of their enterprise,” he says. “I’m happy to help to the extent that I can.”

Although the study found that Chabad can greatly impact its alumni even years after graduation, it also found that some students moved in the opposite direction. “There were certainly some people who basically said, as my father would say, ‘Nisht (not) for me,’” Rosen says.

More than half of respondents either didn’t come to Chabad at all or came very infrequently. Some of those avoided Chabad because its views on gender, intermarriage or Israel didn’t reflect their own, while others preferred different Jewish campus organizations, according to Rosen.

“I grew up in Chicago. I went to the Cubs,” Rosen said.”I didn’t go to the White Sox.”

(Menachem Wecker is an RNS correspondent)

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Menachem Wecker

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  • “Only 15 of the 2,400 respondents said they joined ranks and identify as Chabad. About 88 percent of those who visited Chabad at least once do not identify as Orthodox.

    “The data would say that Chabad is telling the truth. That’s less than 1 percent,” Rosen says. “These are Chabad lists.””

    I’m not saying the critics are right,

    But that is NOT what that data shows. The data quoted shows, of the 84% of respondents who attended this at least group at least once, .7% choose to join the group.

    The other quoted data says 88% of those who visited “at least once” being not Orthodox, does not show you any sort of bias within the group. You’d have to look at the figures for /regular/ members to get a better picture of that. 53% of respondents say they only went a few times (or, in the case of 16%, no times at all).

    Looking at the study linked, however, the raw data doesn’t seem to be provided, but some of what their conclusions are seems to actually support the narrative of the critics.

    Like: “Respondents were more likely to participate if they were raised Orthodox, Conservative” and “Respondents were less likely to participate if they were raised Reform or had a liberal political orientation” and “Those who did not attend Chabad either lacked interest in any Jewish offerings on campus, preferred Hillel, or held liberal social or Jewish values that in their mind ran contrary to Chabad’s values and practices”.

    Sure, the data shows a wide diversity of opinions in the people who went maybe one time. But it shows this group attracts more people for more visits the more orthodox they are. And it shows Chabad has a greater “impact” on less orthodox members, which again plays into the narrative that the organization seeks to make members more orthodox.

    To quote the study directly: “Overall, across the 18 measures of Jewish engagement, those who were raised Orthodox had higher levels of current Jewish engagement in general, but were less likely to be measurably influenced by Chabad, as only small differences separated infrequent from frequent participants.
    Those raised Conservative, Reform or with no denominational affiliation had lower overall levels of current Jewish engagement relative to those raised Orthodox. However, they appeared to be more influenced by Chabad participation, as large differences separated infrequent from frequent participants. Differences between infrequent and frequent participation at Chabad during college were statistically significant across all 18 of the measures of post-college Jewish engagement among those raised Reform and Conservative, and 16 of 18 for those raised with no denominational affiliation.
    Among those raised Orthodox, only three of the measures showed statistically significant differences. On some measures of Jewish engagement and for some denominational groups, moderate participation is sufficient to show impact. Other measures appear to require a higher dosage of Chabad.
    The impact of Chabad is largest among those raised Reform and with no denominational affiliation.”

    The “18 measures” include several Orthodox beliefs. Four measures focus on the importance of dating and marrying other Jews… the study doesn’t really help the narrative that this group DOESN’T make people more Orthodox when the study itself directly states that Reform Jews who join have adopted more Orthodox beliefs post-college than pre-college…

  • This article pretty much bears out my experience, with some caveats (it was longer ago than the respondents in the survey). I attended Chabad not frequently, but it was a good alternative for me and my friends for several reasons, including cost, location, clergy, alcohol, and what in Yiddish is referred to as “haimishness,” a homey, cozy feeling. I did not feel pressured to become Orthodox or “convert” to Lubavitch Hasidism, but it did help to reinforce my levels of observance. However, when they saw someone who seemed interested, they definitely went with it. I knew several people who became Hasidish on my campus, even if it only lasted a short time.

  • It’s pretty common these days for college students to dig around in their roots, at least from a distance. And with all those women attending, it would be unfortunate if male students don’t start attending as this seems like a great, cheap place to meet chicks!

  • In many instances, Chabad is the only game in town – literally. For some it even has elements of counter-culture, the rabbi & his wife being notoriously “uncool” enough to be cool.

    And for most of the Chabad rabbis it is truly a labor of love, as opposed to the Hillel director who’s just paying his dues before he steps up to a more lucrative organizational position

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