Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life


Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Women praying to be heard at the Western Wall


We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple-and-blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC more than 20 years ago, when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi. Several women were in line in front of me; the security guards checking bags told them they couldn’t bring their tallitot into the Kotel Plaza. As of 6 that morning, a new decree had been issued by the “Rabbi of the Wall” forbidding women from entering the plaza with Jewish holy articles like tallit and tefillin. 

This week’s Torah portion continues the story of Joseph. It begins: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda …” “And Judah approached him (Joseph) …” The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 93:6) asks what “approach” means, what are the different strategies one might use to approach those who hold power. It offers three options: One is to approach in conciliation, the second is to approach in battle, and the third is to approach in prayer.

I wanted to approach in prayer. I learned long ago of the power of tallit and kippah to help me move from the secular to the sacred, spiritual tools that begin the transformation that opens my heart to prayer. I took my tallit out and wrapped it around my neck like a scarf. When it was my turn to go through security, a guard pointed to my neck. “Does that scarf have tzitzit? Take it off. You must leave it here.” I tried to explain: “But I am coming to pray. In the mornings, I pray with a tallit. This tallit is very symbolic to me — it was a gift from the students I taught that there is more than one way to be a Jew.” But as he was going through my purse and holding my kippah in his hand, he didn’t seem interested in a conversation. “You can take this,” handing me the kippah, “but not that tallit.”

I unwrapped the tallit and left it in the pile of tallitot other women had been forced to leave behind. Four women who wore their tallitot under their coats were able to pass through security. When they reached the women’s section of the Kotel and our prayer began, they put on and wore their tallitot and were soon summoned by the police and told they must take them off or leave. Subsequently, they were arrested. 

There is no halachic prohibition against a woman wearing a tallit. At most, the prohibition is against saying a bracha that indicates she is fulfilling a commandment. We actually have evidence in rabbinic tradition that some daughters of certain prominent rabbis wore tallit and tefillin. So why is my wanting to approach the Kotel in prayer, the way I pray, a problem for the authorities who control the Kotel? If I can’t approach in prayer, in what for me is real and authentic prayer, the only options left are to approach in conciliation or in battle.

I could approach in conciliation. I could argue that Women of the Wall have been given what we need — we are “allowed” to convene 11 times a year in the women’s sections for public prayer, as long as we move to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service. There we can wear tallitot and tefillin; there it is possible to have women and men pray together. But Robinson’s Arch, while technically part of the Western Wall, is not the “main” Kotel, not the iconic symbol that so many Jews consider sacred. The Kotel is sacred space that should belong to all Jews. It is, in fact, a national monument. The problem is that government legislation has turned it into an Orthodox synagogue where public prayer can only be led by men. It disenfranchises me, along with the vast majority of Jews in the world. It says that my expression of Judaism is not authentic. Conciliation means giving up my own voice and my own truth. 

So the only approach that is left is battle. Women of the Wall will continue to fight, not only for reclaiming the Kotel as public space, but also for all the other issues of religious pluralism that are so important. The women and men who support Women of the Wall will continue to speak truth to power, raising our voices and our prayers to challenge the Orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status —marriage, divorce, burial and conversion — and to work for parity in government funding for non-Orthodox religious and educational institutions, and for recognition of liberal rabbis. And we will continue to act on our conviction that there is more than one way to be a Jew.


Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Artists Dream in a Golden Age


Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.

 

Art Exhibit Links Trojans, Bruins


Divided between the USC and UCLA campuses, the latest art exhibition by the Jewish Artist Initiative (JAI), titled, “Makor/Source,” taps into the wellspring of Jewish life.

How fitting that Ruth Weisberg, USC dean of fine arts, would include her water-themed, mixed-media drawing, “Bound for Nowhere.” As a succession of hunched-over immigrant Jews board a boat headed back to Europe, the vessel, with its portholes and cables strewn like seaweed, appears to be a submarine. It is as if these passengers, who carry their belongings, ascend a gangway into an underwater graveyard.

Alternately, Weisberg, whose drawing features a muted brown or ocher color scheme, suggests that the immigrants may be “undergoing a sea change,” a salutary transmutation as they board the ship. She notes that the Jews in the drawing, though denied a visa to Palestine, ultimately may have been admitted to Israel after the country’s founding, the makor or source of a whole new chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

Barbara Drucker, UCLA art department chair, also contributed a work to the show, “Breadbox Stack No. 1,” in which seven bread boxes are tiered into a ramshackle, yet sturdy, tower. Is it a Tower of Babel surging at peril toward the heavens? Or is it, as Drucker proposes, an image both of life, as symbolized by the bread, and death, since modern-day Greeks use such boxes to store bones?

Drucker works from instinct. She did not set out to create something with a Jewish theme, but the bread boxes date from the 1920s and ’30s and recall the heyday of immigrant and first-generation Jews living in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and the Lower East Side, yet another seminal moment in Jewish history.

JAI, which Weisberg calls the “brainchild” of the Jewish Community Foundation and USC’s Casden Institute, was formed, she said, to “act as a galvanizing force” for bringing Jewish culture to the community.

“Makor/Source” marks the first time that the Hillels of the two universities have collaborated on an exhibition. Roughly 20 local artists submitted works to the show, including collages, paintings and photographs.

Because the exhibition is based on a study of Jewish text, one of the most salient pieces is Joyce Dallal’s “Promises Made in a Language I Don’t Understand,” an ink-jet print of pieces of paper bunched into a ball. The image of crumpled paper might or might not refer to the Hebrew Bible. It’s hard to say, so indecipherable are the runes, yet the scraps, involuted as they are, do resemble a Torah being unscrolled.

Even if Hebrew, like all Indo-European tongues, comes from an original source, the endless permutations can create language barriers that are palpable, if less severe to the artist than humanity’s failings or God’s.

“Makor/Source” is at USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., (213) 747-9135, ext. 14. Opening reception is Sunday, Jan. 22, 3-5 p.m. “Makor/Source” is also at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., (310) 208-3081. Both exhibits run through March 3.