This is the fourth in a series of articles on the growth and impact of Chabad-Lubavitch worldwide.
College campuses can be daunting places with their lecture halls, workloads, clubs and organizations, social life, dorm life, and academic and personal responsibilities. Add to that the attempt to find fellow Jewish students to share holidays, Shabbat meals and more.
Help, however, can be found in the form of Chabad-Lubavitch campus shluchim, or emissaries—most often, young couples with children whose goal is to seek out Jewish students at secondary educational institutions and make their lives a little easier by connecting them to their heritage.
At more than 220 Chabad on Campus centers around the world, emissaries have taken up that challenge, working with young adults as they plan for their future. Although they have excelled at a network of top educational institutions that draw on a 120-year-old methodology of high-level scholarship—coupled with applied prayer and grounded in a young lifetime of voluntary service work—the fact is that many of the couples have never been to a secular school, let alone college, themselves.
That is, most of them.
A handful of shluchim, however, have a distinct connection to students because they serve at their own alma maters, reaching out to young adults at the same academic institutions where their own Judaism flourished.
“There’s an extreme comfort level navigating among Greek life, campus life, student life, Austin life,” says Rabbi Zev Johnson, Chabad on Campus emissary to the University of Texas, where he was a student from 1999-2002. “It’s just natural here, and I believe many students appreciate the shared experiences that we all have together at this great university.”
Bracha Leeds agrees. She and her husband, Rabbi Gil Leeds, both attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 2000s, and are now serving as Chabad on Campus representatives at the school.
Rabbi Zev and Ariela Johnson, and their children
“We can definitely relate firsthand to what students are going through—the academic and social pressures, and where they are coming from,” she says. “Having a ‘big picture’ perspective helps us guide students who need advice about major life decisions.”
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, praises shluchim—those on college campuses and those serving in other Chabad positions—raised without a traditional Chabad upbringing and who now work as emissaries.
“When such people go on shlichus and can tell others, ‘I was just like you, I know what public school is like, I know what university is like,’ they have an affinity,” he explains. “A similar background makes it more attractive to the people they are trying to attract."
“College students may need a shoulder to cry on or a place to have a Shabbaton or just a spot that serves as a home away from home. Chabad on Campus is that service,” he says. “Chabad on Campus is unique. It is heimish [friendly or homey]; it is attractive.”
‘A Warm and Open Place’
Indeed, it was that sense of warmth and support from established Chabad shluchim that set Rabbi Johnson and the Leeds on their paths to becoming Chabad emissaries themselves.
Johnson helps a student wrap tefillin on campus.
Recalling the first time he went to the local Chabad House near the University of Texas for Friday-night dinner, Johnson says “the shaliach at the time sat up with me till 4 or 5 in the morning, discussing Judaism and answering questions.
“As a student, I was able to sleep in, but here was this shaliach who had to wake up early to cater to both the campus and local community,” he says, and was taking the time to just talk and teach. Johnson majored in pre-med and history before attending yeshivah and pursuing a rabbinical degree.
“What moved me was ultimately the message of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—of unconditional love and acceptance, and the fact that there are shluchim globally learning Torah, eating kosher sushi and pizza, yet they sacrifice so much of their personal lives to be there with their fellow Jew locally,” explains Johnson, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas in Austin with his wife, Ariela.
Bracha and Gil Leeds were likewise inspired by the local Chabad representatives serving the city of Berkeley, Calif.
“We were influenced by Rabbi Yehuda and Miriam Ferris—their home, their family, their Chabad House and their children,” says Bracha Leeds. “My reaction was I want a family like that one day, and I want a home like that.”
Rabbi Gil and Bracha Leeds, co-directors of Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley, Calif., and family
She adds that “the Ferrises are so warm and loving and giving. Their Shabbat table is a warm and open place … that really made a big impression on me and my husband in college.”
Today, the Leeds—co-directors of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley—host dozens of students for programs, classes on Judaism and Torah, holiday events, and, yes, weekly Shabbat meals.
“Having gone to college, I feel that we are able to relate in many ways to the students,” says Bracha Leeds. “However, it is certainly not a prerequisite, and we view our circumstances as hashgacha protis [Divine providence] that led us to the role we are in today.
“Being that we did go to college,” she continues, “we feel that, like all other knowledge and experience one acquires, the Rebbe certainly emphasized the need to use that energy to do something good and to help others, which is a big part of why we chose to do what we do.”
Knowing the Culture
One of the newest emissaries serving at a school he attended is Rabbi Shlomo Banon, who co-directs Chabad at the Université de Montreal in Canada with his wife, Matti.
Rabbi Shlomo and Matti Banon, co-directors of the Université de Montreal in Canada
Banon wasa a student at the university in 1991 and 1992, and returned to campus last year. He was motivated to do so in response to the rising number of international students who were coming in from France—quite a number of whom are Jewish, though not always Jewishly connected.
“It’s a very challenging shlichus,” says Banon, a father of nine. “There are 65,000 students, but no one knows how many are Jewish because so many come here from France. The French Jews are escaping anti-Semitism, and the non-Jews are escaping the economy. One of our goals right now is to help newly arrived students from France with all of their Jewish needs as they settled into life in a new country.”
It’s interesting, he goes on to explain. “The Jewish students are completely intermingled. I am in contact with only 50 to 60 students, and each one who’s asked if they know of any other Jews here says, ‘No, I’m the only one.’ ”
Though it’s been a while since he was a student—and even longer since he roamed the halls as a child while his mother worked in the school’s biology department—Banon notes that his history with the university definitely gives him an advantage. “I know the university culture and Quebec culture. I smile, say hello to everyone, and often crack a joke and make people happy to see me.”
Banon, standing at left, accompanied a group of university students to the annual Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton, which took place last month in New York. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson/Chabad.edu)
Resources and Experience
Given the insight into university life that those who’ve attended college have, why don’t more Chabad emissaries with college degrees return to their alma maters?
The main reason is that there are simply too few openings; shluchim are already situated at many of the major universities. And while the know-how could certainly come in handy, the job of emissaries is to hit the ground running, educating themselves on their new locations and steeping in the culture at hand.
“I think that in shlichus, every shaliach uses whatever resources and orientation and experience they have to their advantage,” explains Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, president of Chabad on Campus International. And whatever their background, “they have resources that G‑d gave them and experiences that G‑d gave them.”
“Shlichus has a tremendous learning curve, and we’re given tremendous resources by the Almighty and the Rebbe’s help to do it—and we do it,” adds Schmidt, who also serves as the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Programs and Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Leeds with a student at the Chabad House, which emissaries the world over work hard to make warm and welcoming, a real "a home away from home."
Schmidt—like Johnson, the Leeds and Banon—went to college, earning a degree in television production from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York. But he didn’t return to the school when he became a rabbi.
“The Rebbe sent me to Philadelphia. That’s what made the decision for me,” he says. “If the Rebbe had told me to go to Syracuse, I would have gone to Syracuse. At this point, looking back in hindsight, I can see the advantages to coming to Penn and being in Philadelphia.”
Besides, he adds, “Syracuse has very capable and wonderful shluchim” in the form of Rabbi Yaakov and Chanie Rapoport, who have been there since 1981.
Needless to say, wherever the emissaries are raised and educated, and whatever their backgrounds may be, Rabbi Krinsky emphasizes that their work “is absolutely vital” to helping guide young people to the beauty of Judaism.
A women's event at Berkeley, where the Leeds attended college themselves.