When Lizzy Breiter heard about the University of Southern California’s Remarkable Women Awards, the sophomore knew exactly who she wanted to nominate.

Runya Wagner, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC, was her natural pick for the honor. As a mother, counselor, teacher, organizer and all-around booster of Jewish life, she’s not only responsible for her own six children, said Breiter, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary is an inspiration in the lives of hundreds of other people’s children.

“She’s a mom to six children, and the Chabad House gets anywhere from 100 to 150 people for the weekly Sabbath dinners,” explained Breiter. “So it’s amazing to see all that she does and how she keeps her composure, how interested she is in students.”

Now in its 10th year, the Remarkable Women Awards are decided by committee. According to the program’s website, it honored Wagner and 14 other “women faculty, staff and students, both undergraduate and graduate” this year for their contributions in relation to women’s issues, and for student, community and professional involvement.

In a fast-paced university environment, Breiter said she’s impressed by the fact that Wagner makes sure to ask how people are doing, and means it.

“She invites your family to dinners, and puts that care and interest into students to make sure they’re succeeding, that they’re doing well, that they’re happy,” she stated.

When Wagner got her invitation to the award ceremony, which was just before Purim, she was shocked and touched. Her husband posted it on Facebook and, in a matter of hours, it got more than 100 likes, along with lines upon lines of congratulatory messages from supportive and proud fans.

“I think it definitely says something about the vibrancy of the Jewish community, and specifically of the Chabad Jewish student center here at USC and the type of impact it’s making here on the broader campus community,” said Rabbi Dov Wagner.

His wife’s work includes teaching Torah classes to young women, providing a listening ear, and running a host of holiday programs, as well as organizing and preparing for an annual “Shabbat 500,” a Sabbath meal that targets a crowd of 500 students. This year, it also includes co-chairing the Chabad on Campus International Conference for more than 250 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and their families.

The sheer magnitude of the responsibilities means keeping her priorities balanced and managing her time well, said Runya Wagner.

“We keep really late hours,” she said. “It’s a lot more than a nine-to-five job.”

At night, both husband and wife respond to emails and deal with the paperwork that keeps the center in order.

Rabbi Dov and Runya Wagner founded the USC Chabad House 12 years ago.
Rabbi Dov and Runya Wagner founded the USC Chabad House 12 years ago.

The Wagners started their work on campus 12 years ago, when their daughter, who is nearly 12, was just a few months old. They had five students over for their first Sabbath dinner. Now, she caters for the crowd of more than 100 guests on a weekly basis. Together, they manage classes several nights a week, lunchtime learning programs, and holiday events.

“We try to bring Judaism to the students, to make it really fun and enjoyable for them,” explained Wagner, adding that a large part of their work revolves around creating a sense of community among the students.

She tries to keep a positive outlook and to make sure everyone feels welcome.

“You just pull up some extra chairs,” she said about the many times that the center seems like it’s bursting at the seams, “and don’t really stress out over little things.”

Asal Ehsanipour, a USC sophomore, got involved with the Chabad House at the beginning of her freshman year and it soon became a central niche in her college experience.

“The community I found at Chabad was a support system that really helped me transition into college life,” she said.

Wagner is a significant piece of the equation, added Ehsanipour. “She just gives so much of herself, and she’s definitely not a pushover.”

Ehsanipour recalled how much Wagner’s support has meant to her, for example, one week when she went to dinner after getting disappointing news.

“I was in a bad mood and Runya was really the person who consoled me. She sat down with me and she talked about it, and she was so understanding,” said the student. “She really cares about us.

“She’s a mix between a cool aunt and a mother figure,” continued Ehsanipour. “I just think she’s one of the most hardworking, independent women I’ve ever met.”

Breiter, a double major who serves as the Chabad House’s student president, is secretary and speakers director for the USC College Republicans, volunteers as a host student for the Marshall School of Business’ International Exchange Program, and works as a staff member of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said that she often considers herself a busy woman. That’s until she thinks about all that Wagner gets done in a week, or even a day.

“You walk in, she gives you a hug, and asks you how your day is going. She’s always willing to have a conversation with you,” said Breiter. “It’s a genuine interest that really sticks out. And she has this enthusiasm and positivity, this light around her that really inspires people to want to help.”