As a freshman, Melisa Garber went looking for Jewish activities on campus. The Dartmouth College women and gender studies major, now a senior, ended up at Shabbat dinners with other students in an atmosphere, she said, not all that different from the youth functions she attended as a high school student in Miami.

"It was so superficial, very socially-oriented," she explained. "It was very much about who you went to dinner with."

Then, towards the end of her first year, she hooked up with the Chabad House.

It was like night and day, she said: "I go to Chabad alone."

Clearly, such sentiments could easily be interpreted in the pejorative sense, but Garber, an Argentine immigrant who spent her summer interning for the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation, took pains to emphasize that she is an introspective soul. What she found at Chabad of Dartmouth and in its co-directors, Rabbi Moshe and Chana Gray, was Judaism as "a way of life."

Still, according to students and the Chabad families that offer everything from a shoulder to cry on to a warm meal, a tutorial on tefillin to an exploration Kaballah, the Chabad House can be many things to many people.

As classes begin on college campuses across North America, students like Garber, along with the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who serve their campuses, are meeting incoming freshmen and greeting returning students, all in an effort to introduce the local Chabad House and its wide-range of activities.

At last week's new student orientation at Washington University in S. Louis, Rabbi Hershey and Chana Rochel Novack stressed their weekly Shabbat meals, a host of Jewish enrichment classes and the eminently successful Taglit-birthright Israel trips they take students on in conjunction with Mayanot.

In an interview, Hershey Novack also made note of the expanding graduate programs he and wife coordinate, as well as greater outreach with faculty.

"We are broadening and diversifying our programs," he said, "and see great opportunity in reaching out to Jewish faculty members."

Some Chabad Houses are welcoming new emissaries along with new students, as at the University of Texas, where Rabbi Zev and Ariela Johnson arrived this summer to take over day-to-day operations. Some Chabad Houses are completely new, as at Virginia Tech, where Rabbi Elazar and Rivkah Bloom are heading up the Librescu Chabad Center. The center was established in memory of professor Liviu Librescu, who sacrificed his life to protect his students in the April 2007 mass shooting at the university.

Connecting on a Greater Level

But while each campus setting is different, the success of each of the more than 800 Chabad Houses in the United States, according to students, lies with the emissaries who staff and live in them.

At Dartmouth, Garber said that the Grays' approach, and that of Chabad in general, was more than just encouraging Jewish involvement for its own sake.

"It feels like you are connecting on a greater level," she said. "It explains things more."

When classes are in session, Garber, this year's president of the Chabad student group on campus, learns with the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi once a week. She said she's planning to have her bat mitzvah before graduation in the spring.

For Garber, it all began, curiously enough when considering her early experiences as a freshman, at a Shabbat dinner.

"It's so beautiful," she began. "we all come together for this wonderful family-oriented dinner at the Grays' house, and you wonder how you can fit so many students."

And at a place like Dartmouth, where students tend to devour most things political and generally make their opinions known to anybody with an ear, she explained, it was a comfort to know that you could pretty much say anything at the dinner table.

"The best thing I'm looking forward to are the upcoming presidential elections," she said. "Because in 2004, when it was Kerry and Bush, it was hilarious how all of these people were [devouring] challah and chicken, and still managed to have these arguments and discussions about politics.

"You just feel at home," she added. "This is a place where you can just be yourself."

A study conducted last year by Hebrew University professor Barry Chazan confirmed that the Shabbat dinner experience can be a major draw for students, and a way to keep them coming.

"Young Jews are looking for family," Chazan asserted at the 2006 conference unveiling the study, which examined programs at five campus Chabad Houses. "This is interest, need and desire among this so-called lost tribe for mishpocha."

Without a Hitch

Goldie Tiechtel, co-director of Chabad at the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana, attested that last week's first Shabbat of the year went off without a hitch, drawing a mix of freshmen and upperclassmen.

"The start of the school year has been really amazing," she said Thursday night, interrupted at times by students arriving for her weekly open house when she holds court while preparing food for Shabbat. "There's been an explosion of growth here in Jewish life."

Specifically, Tiechtel said that more than 150 students came for the welcome-back Israeli food event. Their booth at the university's "Quad Day" student-club fair also was a big hit.

"The freshmen, they look around, spending sometimes the whole year figuring out what they want to do," said Tiechtel, who along with her husband, Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, spends most of her time during the week conversing with students in their dorms or on campus walks. "Even if we only see them once or twice, we know that in four years here, we'll meet up with them again somewhere along the line."

Sophia Harris, a junior at the school and a social chair of the Chabad Student Group on campus, agreed that what the Tiechtels call "planting seeds" works.

"I tell freshmen that it's a real good place to hang out," she said of the Chabad House, although she didn't become a regular until after a birthright trip last winter, "where you can always feel comfortable no matter what the situation."

As evidence of their meeting-students-where-they-are approach, Goldie Tiechtel said that, as in years past, they'll be having High Holiday services at the Student Union center.

"Many people who are looking for Judaism will find us," she said, "but at the same time, we try to find as many Jewish students as we can and involve them on some level."