West Virginia University, a top-20 party school deep in the heart of coal country, may seem like an unlikely place for a thriving Jewish community, but it's off-campus environs now boast a new Chabad House.

Open earlier this year under the direction of Rabbi Zalman and Hinda Gurevitz, the Chabad Jewish Center of Morgantown, W.Va., caters to the university's Jewish students as well as to the city's diverse population, previously served only by a Reform temple.

Less than a month since classes began on Aug. 20, the Gurevitz's last week hosted dozens of students at their home for High Holiday services celebrating the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. They provided home-cooked holiday meals after each day's services.


The university, recently ranked No. 1 by The Princeton Review in a list of the top-20 party schools in the nation, has an estimated 600 to 800 Jewish students, although Gurevitz suspects the actual number to be closer to 1,500 when accounting for those who either may not know they're Jewish or choose to not identify as Jews.

"I think there are a lot of people here who don't have many opportunities to do something Jewish," said Gurevitz, who, under the aegis of Chabad-Lubavitch of Virginia, co-directs West Virginia's first Chabad House. "We are here to give them an opportunity to do that."

Prior to the Gurevitz's arrival, West Virginia's only connection to Chabad was through holiday visits and summer tours by pairs of rabbinical students. Chabad-Lubavitch of Pittsburgh, Pa., an hour-and-a-half away, regularly sent couples down on Purim, where they would co-host a party for students with the WVU Hillel.

"Even if there is only one Jew, Chabad reaches out," said Hinda Gurevitz, who moved her family of four from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. She predicted that with the addition of the new center, "more Jews will come here."

Currently operating out of a rented house near campus, Gurevitz, whose parents have directed Casa Lubavitch-Bogota in Colombia for 27 years, said that she and her husband would likely move to a more permanent location in 2008.

"Hopefully, by the end of the school year, we'll learn where the best place to put the Chabad House is," she said.

Strategizing Growth

For the time being, the pair are working out what the best strategy is to strengthen Jewish identity among a student body known just as much for beer bashes as its student newspaper – The Daily Athenaeum was recently ranked No. 8 on a list of best student-produced newspapers.

"We're figuring out what people need and how we can offer it to them," said Zalman Gurevitz. "I particularly see the Purim collaboration with Hillel continuing."

In addition, the rabbi has explored bringing in kosher food for Morgantown's student and residential population.

But until Morgantown's grocery stores maintain viable kosher sections, Gurevitz said that they'll cope by "shopping carefully" and making runs to Pittsburgh to stock up.

"We will try to create a bigger demand so someone from Pittsburgh will come here to sell," he said.

Richard Cohen, a Morgantown lawyer and a past president of the Reform temple, characterized initial community response as mixed, but warming to the idea of a decidedly Orthodox Jewish presence in their corner of West Virginia.

Offering up his own wife as an example, the Brooklyn native, who moved to West Virginia to open up his law practice in 1979, said that some community members felt threatened by a more-observant form of Jewish life, but that he for one didn't share their pessimism. He acknowledged that an injection of Judaism might prove to be an excellent antidote to the university's rowdy quotient.

At the end, of the day, though, "to the extent there will be more learning opportunities, I am happy," he concluded.

Matt Witenstein, the assistant executive director of the national Jewish-affiliated Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, was decidedly more upbeat.

"I am a huge advocate for Chabad there because there aren't [enough] organized Jewish events, both religiously and culturally, at WVU," said Witenstein.

Citing the fraternity's short but successful history at the university as a prime example, Witenstein said that Jewish students at the school are hungry for Jewish life. Despite the fact that a Sigma Alpha Mu house was only first chartered at WVU in January 2005, it has already earned top honors among the campus' numerous Greek organizations. Adding a Chabad House to the campus landscape, he said, means there is "another organized contingent of Jews on campus."

Chabad will encourage "more Jewish kids to go there," he stated. "The more Jewish things they have at WVU, the more attractive the school becomes to Jewish students."