A wide-ranging study on the role of Jewish youth on college campuses, the first of its kind, has found that Chabad centers on campuses increase post-college Jewish involvement of students regardless of their previous Jewish engagement.
The Hertog Study of Chabad on Campus, produced by social scientists Mark Rosen and Steven M. Cohen and released in September, was initiated to find out who attends Chabad centers, what Chabad does to engage undergraduates and how Chabad involvement affects young Jewish adults after graduation.
Researchers from the Hertog Foundation investigated student activity at 22 of Chabad’s nearly 200 college locations and analyzed survey data from 2,400 alumni under the age of 30 to gauge Chabad’s impact on 18 measures of Jewish engagement. The research included interviews and focus groups with parents, faculty, university officials and Hillel leaders.
“It’s a good opportunity to take a broad look at Chabad on Campus’ rapid growth over the last 15 years,” Chabad spokesman Rabbi Chaim Landa said in an email. Chabad on Campus spread from fewer than 30 colleges in 2000 to 198 by the start of the 2016-17 academic year.
“We are here for every single Jew,” said Rabbi Zalman Charytan, who leads the Chabad center at Kennesaw State University. “That is our main goal.”
The study backed up his comment, finding that Chabad overcomes denominational divides, attracting students from the full range of Jewish backgrounds, 88 percent of whom were not raised Orthodox.
“Chabad centers strive to welcome all Jewish students regardless of their Jewish upbringing or sensibilities. The couples work to create welcoming, attractive, and fun Jewish social environments. … They seek to create a ‘home away from home’ and to ‘ensure that students graduate as stronger and more empowered Jews than when they entered,’ ” the report reads.
One key, the study found, is a lack of judgment. While Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins model scrupulous observance, they do not expect students to do the same and do not view students as any less Jewish if they are not observant.
That approach has long-term benefits. Those who were raised Reform and were active in Chabad in college later had a 113 percent higher overall Jewish engagement level than Reform Jews who did not get involved with Chabad on Campus, the study concluded. For those raised with no denomination, post-college Jewish engagement increased 107 percent, and the increase was 63 percent for Conservative-raised students. The effect was nominal for Orthodox students.
“Post-college impact of involvement with Chabad during college is pervasive, affecting a broad range of Jewish attitudes and behaviors,” the study reads. “These include religious beliefs and practices, Jewish friendships, Jewish community involvement, Jewish learning, dating and marriage, emotional attachment to Israel, and the importance of being Jewish.”
The study’s authors noted that three-quarters of Chabad participants also went to Hillel activities at some point; both organizations are active on all 22 campuses studied. While Hillel also has a positive post-college effect on Jewish engagement, the study did not quantify that result, instead concentrating on isolating Chabad’s benefits.
Chabad’s effect on college students is noticeable across the Jewish denominational world in matters such as increased attendance at religious services and membership dues, Landa wrote, and applies even to those students who had only moderate Chabad participation in college.
The increase in Jewish engagement did not lead to a change in the level of observance, the study found, and there was no connection between involvement with Chabad on Campus and post-college identification with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
While in college, Rabbi Landa said, Chabad attendees receive numerous benefits. “From the totality of the authors’ data, conclusions and field reports, a picture emerges (of) a deeply impactful and personal experience for the individual student, one that has deep and long-lasting impact on their lives for a long, long time to come.”
Rosen found that Chabad on Campus “has a very profound effect on the students that become involved, and the Jewish world doesn’t really appreciate how profound that influence is.”
A takeaway of the study is how Chabad on Campus is perceived by the Jewish institutional world, Rosen said in a phone interview. “One of the misconceptions is if Chabad is an Orthodox organization, then of course only Orthodox kids would be attracted. The study dispelled that perception. Another perception was that Chabad’s goal was to make everyone who comes Orthodox. That’s not what happens. Another misconception is that Chabad is trying to turn students into Chabadniks who recruit for various movements. That’s a complete nonissue.”
Rosen said students who become involved with Chabad tend to stay in touch with the rabbi and rebbetzin from their campus after college and are inclined to get involved with mainstream Judaism through Federation, synagogues and programs such as Moishe House. “It’s really quite remarkable that students who didn’t grow up Orthodox and aren’t interested in Orthodox Judaism are attracted to a rabbinic couple and stay in touch with them without becoming Orthodox themselves, but become more involved Jewishly in whatever way they feel most comfortable.”
Anna Streetman, a former AJT intern who was active with Chabad at Kennesaw State, said she felt more connected to Jewish life because Rabbi Charytan was engaging. “He took the time to meet with me on campus if I ever had any questions or wanted to discuss Judaism. I would say the findings in the study directly mirror my experience at Chabad.”
Many who join a Chabad are not looking for anything specifically Jewish. “They heard it’s a fun place to be, and the food is good,” Rosen said. “The percentage who come for those reasons stick around and keep coming and eventually there’s a transformation and evolution towards a greater Jewish identity and more involvement in Jewish life and a greater appreciation of all things Jewish.”
The Chabad on Campus research took place at the following universities (with the estimated number of Jewish undergraduates):
Arizona State (3,500)
California, Santa Cruz (1,600)
Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (3,250)
New York (6,000)
San Diego State (1,200)
Southern California (2,000)
University of Washington (2,000)
Washington University (1,500)
Wisconsin, Madison (4,200)